Twerk Beat Work in Time’s Person of the Year Finalists

Let’s have a talk about which high-profile women made the top 10 — and which didn’t.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 24: Singer Miley Cyrus performs onstage during the 2013 American Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Dec. 10, 2013, 5:15 p.m.

Me­dia cri­ti­cism and cul­tur­al cri­tiques are not the game and not the pur­pose of this column.

But the Nel­son Man­dela en­co­mi­ums have run their le­git­im­ate and laud­at­ory course. Wash­ing­ton’s budget deal is so pid­dling, it scarcely de­serves com­ment.

Today we learn the iden­tity of Time‘s Per­son of the Year. As a cul­tur­al lode­star, the POY has, like Time it­self, lost some of its luster. Time is not the in­tel­lec­tu­al ful­crum it was for elites or the middle class who as­pired to someday join them. Still, it is a mir­ror for Amer­ica cul­tur­ally and polit­ic­ally, and the POY be­comes part of each year’s time cap­sule. I don’t care who the POY will be this year nearly as much as I am dis­mayed about who made the list of 10 fi­nal­ists. And I’m as­ton­ished and in­furi­ated over those who did not make the list.

Three wo­men are among the 10:

  • Edie Wind­sor, who filed suit against a fed­er­al as­sess­ment of $363,000 in es­tate taxes be­cause her de­ceased part­ner and spouse (via a mar­riage in Canada) was a wo­man, Thea Spy­er, not a man. Wind­sor’s case made it to the Su­preme Court and led to the over­turn­ing of the De­fense of Mar­riage Act;
  • Kath­leen Se­beli­us, the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary, former gov­ernor and in­sur­ance com­mis­sion­er of Kan­sas, and the per­son at the helm of the checkered im­ple­ment­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act;

Let’s stip­u­late what Time knows but will not ad­mit. Cyr­us is not a ser­i­ous con­tender for POY. She is click bait, a bona fide celebrity with uni­ver­sal name re­cog­ni­tion who has gen­er­ated for Time wave upon wave (more than 340,000) of curi­ous web­site clicks. In this, Cyr­us is a Time gim­mick, a flashy and ex­ploit­able Web com­mod­ity trans­par­ently un­fit for POY status and un­am­bigu­ously graf­ted onto the list for com­mer­cial reas­ons.

Who should have been on the list in­stead of the former Han­nah Montana?

How about Janet Yel­len? Yel­len is the first wo­man nom­in­ated chair­wo­man (as this column in­dic­ated she would be in Ju­ly) of the Fed­er­al Re­serve. That means she will be­come the Fed’s first fe­male chair, something one would have to ima­gine caught Time’s eye. Wait, Yel­len didn’t do any­thing this year worthy of POY mer­it? Vice chair­man of the Fed is in­suf­fi­cient, I sup­pose. As vice chair, Yel­len has par­ti­cip­ated in all de­cisions about qual­it­at­ive eas­ing, the Fed’s un­pre­ced­en­ted and con­tro­ver­sial monthly pur­chas­ing of $85 bil­lion in Treas­ury bonds. As the new Fed chair, Yel­len will have to un­wind qual­it­at­ive eas­ing, and her ap­proach and ex­plan­a­tion will trans­form the eco­nom­ic land­scape and the postre­ces­sion status of the Fed. Time has of­ten used POY status to dis­cuss fig­ures at the cusp of his­tory — cer­tainly that’s why Hitler was chosen in 1939 and Ayatol­lah Khomeini in 1979. Yel­len has already made his­tory and is un­ques­tion­ably on the cusp of eco­nom­ic his­tory that will re­ver­ber­ate across all in­come sec­tors in the U.S. and send shivers through the world eco­nomy. But Yel­len is no Mi­ley Cyr­us.

How about Mary Barra? She was named CEO of Gen­er­al Mo­tors on Tues­day, the first wo­man ever to lead an Amer­ic­an auto­maker. Well, she was just named, so Time could not have known who she was, right? Wrong. Barra has for months been on the short list to re­place Dan Aker­son as chief ex­ec­ut­ive and was most re­cently in charge of glob­al product de­vel­op­ment and pur­chas­ing; since 2010, she over­saw glob­al en­gin­eer­ing, design, and qual­ity, and has been cred­ited with sim­pli­fy­ing and im­prov­ing GM design by re­du­cing from three to one the num­ber of pro­ject su­per­vising en­gin­eers. GM’s rise from near-bank­ruptcy (thanks to a gov­ern­ment bail­out that will leave the tax­pay­ers $10 bil­lion in ar­rears) is a fas­cin­at­ing story of in­dustry policy. Barra’s been with GM for 33 years, and her role in the com­pany’s re­bound would be among the most read­able and fas­cin­at­ing nar­rat­ives about lead­er­ship and busi­ness guile in re­cent memory. But Barra is no Mi­ley Cyr­us.

How about Sheryl Sand­berg? Wheth­er you love or hate Sand­berg’s book, Lean In, you can­not deny it triggered a de­bate about how wo­men suc­ceed; how the men in their lives try to help them suc­ceed (of­ten at so­ci­et­al costs Sand­berg was the first to seri­ally de­nounce); how in­grained (and leg­al) cor­por­ate habits still tilt against wo­men’s ad­vance­ment; and how wo­men them­selves of­ten de­feat them­selves be­fore the com­pet­it­ive cor­por­ate games be­gin. Sand­berg, of course, is more than an au­thor of a best-selling book. She’s the chief op­er­at­ing of­ficer of Face­book and a former vice pres­id­ent of glob­al on­line sales at Google. Sand­berg was also a protégé of, and vo­cal ad­voc­ate for, Lawrence Sum­mers over Janet Yel­len (see above) as next Fed chair. Talk about a sub­plot. But Sand­berg is no Mi­ley Cyr­us.

How about wo­men in the Sen­ate? Twenty. It’s the largest num­ber of wo­men in the Sen­ate in Amer­ic­an his­tory, and their col­lect­ive ac­tion is chan­ging the way the Sen­ate works and the way polit­ics and le­gis­la­tion move. Four wo­men are power­ful com­mit­tee chairs — Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., of the Ag­ri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee, Di­anne Fein­stein, D-Cal­if., of the In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., of the Budget Com­mit­tee, and Bar­bara Box­er, D-Cal­if., of En­vir­on­ment and Pub­lic Works. Nev­er be­fore have wo­men in the Sen­ate wiel­ded this much le­gis­lat­ive power. But the 20 sen­at­ors are not Mi­ley Cyr­us.

How about Sen. Kirstin Gil­librand? Gil­librand, D-N.Y., is not a com­mit­tee chair, but her push to change the mil­it­ary’s ap­proach to ac­cus­a­tions of sexu­al as­sault (tak­ing de­cisions on in­vest­ig­a­tion and pro­sec­u­tion out of the hands of com­mand­ers) has rattled the Pentagon and changed the course of the le­gis­lat­ive de­bate. Gil­librand’s ap­proach may not pre­vail dur­ing Sen­ate reau­thor­iz­a­tion of the Na­tion­al De­fense Au­thor­iz­a­tion Act, but it has already come closer than any­one thought pos­sible and el­ev­ated the is­sue of mil­it­ary rape in­to a story of ac­count­ab­il­ity, justice, and re­spect up and down the ranks of an all-vo­lun­teer force. But Gil­librand is no Mi­ley Cyr­us.

Re­view­ing the missed op­por­tun­it­ies on Time‘s top 10 fi­nal­ists for POY, I’m re­minded of this Han­nah Montana meta­phor: “It’s like “walkin’ bare­foot through a field of cows after their morn­in’ sit down!”

Very true, Han­nah. I don’t blame you or Mi­ley. I blame Time. Maybe oth­ers will, too.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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