The best of our brilliant century, so far
by Stephen Heuser
Every year about this time I start to feel an empty space in my life: it's been
a full four weeks since I last read a year-end list.
Year-end lists are a staple of journalism, and this year we had a quadruple
whammy: the close of a year, a decade, a century, and a millennium. This opened
up a world of possibility in year-end lists -- the Top 100 People of the
Millennium (Biography magazine); 25 Americans Who Shaped the Modern Era
(U.S. News & World Report) -- and also raised interesting questions
about timing. Journalists like to be first in print with a story, but a wrap-up
demands a certain restraint. The results were amusing: Time magazine
declared "Millennium madness" last January. Imposing thinkers such as Peter
Jennings raced to publish their book-length summations of the century with more
than a year left on the clock, meaning that several distinguished people who
made their marks very late in the 20th century, such as Britney Spears and
Mahir, got left out entirely.
No matter. In journalism, being early is nearly always preferable to being
right. So in that spirit, let me be the first to offer a look back on our crazy
century, the 21st. Sure, there may be a couple of important events still on the
way -- digital food, the six-term presidency of George V.W. Bush -- but you
can't say anyone beats the Phoenix to the punch.
Herewith, the Top Six Things of the 21st Century. I'd like to offer a Top 10,
but not enough has happened yet.
1) Wedding of the Century: Time Warner and AOL
Let's get this straight. America Online -- a 15-year-old company whose primary
contribution to world culture has been the dissemination of 6.5 billion
unwanted disks -- acquires a family of companies that have influenced decades
of American life. This is huge. It also feels a bit like Scientology acquiring
the Catholic Church. The big reason given for the merger is "synergy" -- AOL
will now have access to 120 million magazines a week in which to
distribute yet more unwanted CD-ROMs, and AOL subscribers who want to read
Sports Illustrated or watch Warner Bros. cartoons will be able, in the
privacy of their own homes, to wait 20 minutes for them to download.
Still, synergy seems like a pretty lame rationale for a $160 billion
merger, and I've come up with another theory to explain it. Remember who
Time magazine named Man of the Year for 1999? It was Jeff Bezos, the
head of Amazon.com. My theory is that this didn't sit too well with Steve Case,
the chairman of AOL and a man who has been in the Internet business
months longer than Bezos. So Case took out his checkbook and just bought
the magazine and the horse it rode in on. Ch-ching! Screw you, Bezos! This
year's Man of the Year: Steve Case! Man of the Year 2001: Steve Case!
You heard it here first.
2) Politician of the Century: Jane Swift
Who says the lieutenant governor's job consists of smiling, taking your lumps,
and propping up your boss when he's had a few too many? That was a job for
lieutenant suckas. Jane Swift is a lieutenant governor for the 21st
century: random, unapologetic, and as perk-mad as a Massport head.
I admit, however, to a certain grudging respect for Jane Swift. When I'm stuck
in traffic, I always imagine myself soaring over the heads of all those
bastards clogging up the road ahead of me. Jane Swift clearly imagines the same
thing, and, unlike me, she has a state helicopter at her disposal.
3) Career Move of the Century: Resigning
The 20th century ended with a political bang: Boris Yeltsin woke up from
a bender to discover he'd been president of Russia for several years and didn't
want the job anymore. For Americans, a bigger watershed came on January 3, when
Charles Schulz ran his last Peanuts strip and retired from cartooning.
And in the middle of a huge government investigation, cyberguru Bill Gates just
quit, handing over the reins of Microsoft to an old buddy from Harvard.
If nothing else, the 21st century is shaping up as a time of leisure for those
who made their nut in the 20th. But it also leaves me with a question: legally,
if you're promoting from within, you have to post a job publicly. Did you see
the Microsoft job listed? Neither did I. Try again, Bill, and this time make it
a real search.
4) Football of the Century: Elián Gonzáles
Late last century, a six-year-old Cuban boy was pulled to shore in south
Florida after his mom drowned in an immigration attempt. Early this century,
the INS decided to send the boy back to his dad, who still lives in Cuba.
Protests erupted among the anti-Castro crowd in Florida, and a group of US
representatives bravely authored a congressional bill to grant the boy
citizenship. Critics disagree about what this means: either 21st-century
American politics are secretly run by a handful of right-wing Cuban expats, or
21st-century patriotism is so hard-core that politicians have no trouble
deciding that a six-year-old boy would be better off having the American System
of Government than a father.
5) Candidate of the Century: John McCain
In the late 20th century, we had a rough-edged national candidate who
was tortured in an enemy prison camp. His name was James Stockdale, and we
couldn't make enough fun of him. This century, that candidate is John McCain,
he gives out "Hero" buttons, and we're lining up to give him back rubs. The
difference isn't just the divergent personal lucidity of the two men: it's
eight years of a self-serving slickster in the Oval Office, a man compared to
whom Kid Rock seems like a model of moral rigor. The question: in our national
dalliance with McCain, are 21st-century Americans finally embracing the kind of
robust, plainspoken character who deserves a shot at the White House? Or are we
delivering ourselves into the hands of an anti-abortion, pro-military loose
cannon? The answer was not yet clear at press time.
6) Fizzle of the Century: 1/1/00
I admit I bought some extra flashlights before the end of the last
century. I made sure there was plenty of canned food and an extra case of beer
in the pantry. I withdrew a couple hundred bucks, stockpiled firewood, counted
down, closed my eyes, and then . . .
Hmm. The calendar turned over, the lights stayed on, the water kept flowing.
Even my crummy old laptop still knew what day it was. So what was all the fuss
about? You could write this one off as media overkill, but I think we all
played a part. Secretly I wanted the year 2000 to be different from the year
before, and you probably did too. The turn of the millennium had an edge of
fear that made it all the more delicious, and afterward I couldn't help feeling
disappointed that something hadn't gone wrong -- that I wasn't forced to
defend my apartment from wild bears for at least one night. It would, at least,
have made the fin de siècle into something more than the start of
On the positive side, it's safe to say the century's been all uphill from
Stephen Heuser can be reached at email@example.com.