The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000

[Out There]

Happy 21st!

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 another workweek.

On the positive side, it's safe to say the century's been all uphill from there.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@phx.com.