The distinction of being Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2002 fell to three persons who were unknowns in 2001: whistle-blowers Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom, Coleen Rowley of the FBI, and Sherron Watkins of Enron. “Who are these women?” the introduction to their profiles asked. “For starters, they aren’t people looking to hog the limelight.”

The same apparently can’t be said of a more familiar figure who’d been a leading contender for a spot on the front of that issue: President George W. Bush.

According to four Time sources, the magazine had prepared a Person of the Year cover commemorating the partnership between Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. But it fell through after the White House balked at giving the magazine access for such a presentation. Bush aides reportedly preferred that their boss appear alone on the cover.

Time’s end-of-year “POY” tradition, which just celebrated its 75th anniversary, is a major meta-media event. Whether the anointed is Queen Elizabeth II (1952), King Faisal (1974), Ronald Reagan (1980), or Pope John Paul II (1994), Time generally sells 1.5 times as many copies of its POY issues as of its more prosaic weeklies on dieting, retirement, or the latest Spielberg movie.

Time Managing Editor Jim Kelly says the whistle-blower edition will move 300,000 newsstand copies, compared with the 2002 average of 170,000.

This past year, the magazine played up the POY process with a full public display. In addition to cooperating with a half-hour special aired by corporate cousin CNN, Time editors unveiled their list of nominees at a November panel discussion at New York’s Four Seasons restaurant. The list covered everyone from Eminem to Osama bin Laden to Martha Stewart.

After that burst of hype, though, the Person of the Year selection process settled into its usual Kremlinological shadows. The decision-making is inscrutable even from the inside, with multiple reporters independently working on profiles of the leading contenders. By early December, however, the magazine’s brass had clearly thrown out many of the B-list options and appeared to have settled on the Bush-Cheney ticket. Making a case for the pair was easy: Bush’s political activism in the fall had put the Senate back in Republican hands, and Cheney’s bellicose foreign-policy views were mobilizing U.S. forces for war with Iraq.

The White House wasn’t about to let Time photographers frame up Bush and Cheney together in the Oval Office. According to several Time staffers, administration officials favored a solo session with Bush but resisted a package that would portray the presidency as a collaborative effort.

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett confirms that the White House denied access after reviewing Time’s “potential” package. “We decided that the president would not be available for an interview,” says Bartlett. However, Bartlett insists that the administration’s policy of rotating press access—not jitters about the “partnership”—dictated the decision. “We decided it was U.S. News & World Report’s turn to have the president in their year-end interview,” says Bartlett.

To get an image of the governing duo, Time commissioned an artist to paint a Bush-Cheney portrait at a cost of “several thousand dollars,” says Kelly. In the past, many of the magazine’s year-end headliners have been presented in artists’ renderings, for extra gravitas. The whistle-blowers, by contrast, appeared in a standard newsweekly portrait photo—as did Bush in 2000, when he earned the cover at the last minute as the president-elect.

That previous appearance apparently did not spare Time the White House’s pique. In the run-up to the 2001 POY issue, just following the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House accorded Time Bob Woodward-level access to Bush, including a sit-down interview and invitations to administration meetings, according to Time’s Kelly. It would have made for spicy reading, except for one thing: Time bosses jilted the commander in chief in favor of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The issue sold 430,000 newsstand copies.

The Bush administration’s quibbles over access didn’t determine the magazine’s cover choice, says Kelly. Rather, the whistle-blower feature allowed him to roll two key 2002 issues—terrorism and corporate scandals—into one piece. Bush-Cheney, says Kelly, encompassed a single story: “It didn’t get at a very important story, which was the business scandals.”

Whatever Time’s editorial deliberations, the administration’s hardball stance certainly appeared to send reporters scrambling for an alternative to the Bush-Cheney package. Early on, the whistle-blower idea wasn’t even competing for POY treatment, according to a magazine staffer. But in the week before the end-of-year issue went to press, the whole presentation doubled in size, says the staffer.

Kelly counters that he didn’t have a complete look at competing packages until late. “The whistle-blowers turned out to be such compelling stories,” recalls Kelly.

The magazine’s Bush-Cheney piece at least didn’t end up on the cutting-room floor. Time appended it to the POY issue under the heading “Partnership of the Year” and teed up the piece with a splashy rendering of the artist’s portrait. The article featured no exclusive interviews with the partners but did incorporate quotes from administration officials on Bush-Cheney synergies. Bartlett cites those quotes as proof that the White House had no problem with the dynamic-duo treatment. “If we had disagreed with it, none of us would have participated in the story,” says Bartlett.

That access yielded a clever anecdote about Bush asserting his independence from Cheney: In a meeting with Sen. John McCain to discuss campaign-finance reform, the president made a point of demurring when Cheney bluntly opposed McCain’s position. “Well,” Time quotes Bush as saying with a chuckle, “it’s a good thing I’m handling this issue.”

Get a Loaf of This

The Washington Times could use a lesson in how a jail operates.

Like most local media outlets, the Times jumped on the story of 17-year-old sniper suspect John Lee Malvo and that ghastly vegetable loaf. A concoction of wheat, spinach, beans, and other items, the loaf for a time served as the jailhouse staple of the vegetarian Malvo, who wouldn’t eat the standard carnivore fare available at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.

Then Malvo’s legal guardian, Todd Petit, complained that the slop was giving his client diarrhea and other nasty symptoms. Fairfax County Sheriff Stan Barry staged a public taste-test of the loaf, and he just barely managed to choke down a bite.

In a Dec. 21 story, Times reporter Jon Ward managed to suggest that Petit had, in effect, condemned Malvo to multiple loaf feedings throughout the holidays. Pointing out that Petit had been negotiating on Malvo’s behalf on diet-related matters, Ward wrote: “The teenager’s diet will not change anytime soon. Mr. Petit left for an eight-day cruise Wednesday and will be out of contact until then, an assistant said.”

Petit blew a gasket. “I would hope that my personal life and long-planned family vacations would not be something that the press would write about. I don’t understand why the Washington Times would write about that,” he says.

Fairfax’s criminal-justice bureaucracy has not yet mutated to the point that lawyers must manage every potato consumed by their clients. Malvo, it turns out, can simply request the standard jail food and pick away at the vegetarian side dishes—no matter

what ship his lawyer has boarded. “The story…indicating that my being out of town injured or harmed [Malvo] was patently false,” says Petit.

Petit says he told Ward that he would no longer discuss the Malvo case with him. The paper, says Petit, has since sent another staffer to cover the story. Melissa Hopkins, the Times media-relations rep, says, “Nothing has changed at the paper because of the story.” Several reporters, says Hopkins, have shared the sniper beat, and if Ward comes up with another story about Malvo, “it would be considered for publication like always.” —Erik Wemple

More from WCP