Man of the Year

Man of the Year

Man of the Year

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 21 1997 3:30 AM

Man of the Year

An extraordinary life.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

A visionary has the power to imagine what the world can be, and a revolutionary has the power to make it so. Very few men are either. Our 1997 Man of the Year is both. Ideas have consequences, and it is in 1997 that we have seen the consequences of his. With his pinwheeling, hopscotch creativity, he has changed the nation's center of gravity, reinventing commerce, art, science, technology, and faith. His animating spirit--a pragmatic, idealistic humanitarianism--is rapidly becoming the ethos of the age. His passing comments roil financial markets from Bangkok to Bond Street. Hollywood moguls make pilgrimages to his seaside home. Bill Gates seeks his counsel. So does Stephen Hawking. He is, it is said, the only man who plays golf with Bill Clinton and doesn't let him cheat.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


Still, he is not yet a household name and may not be for some time. He is an unassuming man--a thatch of sandy hair, a pair of inquisitive brown eyes, a slight shadow of beard at all hours of the day. In a year of spectacular emotion, his was a quiet triumph. He lacks the press savvy of Clinton. He doesn't touch the heart as Princess Diana did, or the conscience as Mother Teresa did (or the pocketbook as Alan Greenspan does). But while other people make headlines, he is making history. When they chronicle our time, it should be his name that appears on the roll of honor.

But only if ... His vision and his revolution are high-risk gambles. If they fail--and no one can predict if they will--our world will be a more dangerous place, a darker, poorer place, a world untethered from the kind of stability we have come to cherish. And if he succeeds? "Every so often God blesses us," says his close friend and confidant the Dalai Lama, "and he is such a blessing."

To understand him, to understand both his leathery toughness and his gentle soul, follow U.S. Route 44 west from Lubbock, Texas, for 50 miles. Here, 50 miles from Lubbock and 50 miles from nowhere, is a one-stoplight town called Poseyville. And here, up the block from the River Diner--though there's no river for miles--is a three-room cabin. It is in this cabin, five decades ago, that his mother came, alone, a young widow trying to start over with her 2-year-old boy. That little house was his crucible. They grew up together, mother and son. They studied together on the oilcloth-covered kitchen table, beneath the only electric light in the house. He learned his ABCs; she slowly, slowly earned her degree via correspondence. And when the lessons were over, she instilled in him the homespun wisdom that her parents had instilled in her: "The power is the word, not the sword." "There is no difficulty so great that it cannot be overcome, no triumph so great that it cannot be destroyed." His mother still lives in the same house, but electric lights are everywhere now. He phones her every day, at noon sharp. (Once he excused himself from an audience with the pope to call.)

"From the time he was a boy," she confides, "I knew that destiny had reserved him a seat." If destiny had indeed reserved him a seat, it was in the very front of the classroom. He was an A student at Poseyville High. He was also a three-sport star and "the most ferocious competitor I've ever seen," his coach says today. Even as a teen-ager, he showed signs of his independent-mindedness. His friends mowed lawns; he climbed mountains. They took piano lessons; he taught himself the trombone and busked for dimes on Main Street.


"Adversity," wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "is the seedling of courage." And adversity came. He headed east for college on scholarship. His mother, alone again, fell ill. School was a struggle. Midway through his freshman year, he gave up, hitchhiked home, and told his mother he was back for good to take care of her. That night, they went out for a walk on the plains. "It was," he says, "a clear, moonlit night. We walked by an old ranch house, and I could see the barbed wire and the old brands glinting in the moonlight. All of a sudden I thought of when the world was young and growing and full of hope. And I wanted to make it so again." The next morning, he hitchhiked back East.

His mind burns with a bright, clear flame, and his professors soon recognized his genius. He earned his degree in three years and went to work. He astonished. "He could see around corners," says an old colleague. He overturned conventional wisdom, and preached heresy. In the beginning, he was dismissed as a crackpot--at best an eccentric, at worst a threat. But steadily his fame and power and influence grew. He was not an intellectual, and he had no time for ideology, but he had the American genius for common sense. His own powerful ideas rooted themselves in society's cracks and began to sprout in all directions. And sprout. And sprout.

Today, despite his fame, he remains a startlingly humble man. Every morning, while he's in the bath, he tries to answer his dozens of personal letters. He's never missed a high-school reunion, and he still finds time to eat dinner with childhood friends twice a week. "When he got famous, I was sure he'd forget us," says one old playmate, "but he hasn't." His charm is legendary. So is his equanimity. When his aides panic over some nugget of bad news, he calms them down by quoting his sages: Lao Tzu, Euripedes, Toynbee, Covey.

Every day, he says, he receives a letter or two urging him to run for president. He laughs the idea off. The president is a captive. He is a free man, and in freedom is true power. This is, he says, only the beginning of his crusade. In the third century, after the invention of the fulcrum and lever, Archimedes wrote, "Give me where to stand, and I will move the earth." It is now the cusp of the millennium. The Man of the Year has two feet planted squarely on the ground. And the earth is moving.