Who Should Be Time’s Person of the Year?

Newt Gingrich, Bryan Cranston, Matt Lauer and others sit down to discuss

At the Time & Life building in New York this afternoon, media types convened over lunch to hear a rather diverse panel of newsmakers—including former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Today host Matt Lauer, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi—discuss who should receive the title of Time magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year.

Actually, it may be more accurate to say “what” than “who”—because, as today's debate revealed, “person” can have a pretty broad definition. Drones, new media, space exploration and the U.S. counterterrorism program were all suggested during the discussion, which was moderated by the magazine's managing editor, Rick Stengel. There's precedent for a nonperson (or, at least, group of people) winning the title: “The Computer” was named “Machine of the Year” in 1982, while “The Endangered Earth” was 1988’s “Planet of the Year.”

Among the nonperson nominees, climate change was one of the heavier contenders, thanks to Superstorm Sandy and the droughts that have ravaged the Midwest this year. Not that Gingrich, himself the 1995 recipient of the title (at the time, it was “Man of the Year”), was convinced of its importance: “I’m highly dubious that climate change will have all these negative consequences, and I think it could have positive consequences.” And, in any case, he added, “How do we know what the ‘right’ climate is?”

Given his recent reelection, it was no surprise that Barack Obama was another one of the most talked-about subjects at the event. More surprising was that the only person to actually name Obama to his Person of the Year frontrunner list was Gingrich. “I have twice underestimated President Obama by a large margin,” admitted Gingrich, referring both to the 2008 Democratic primary and the 2012 general election. (The former Speaker’s other picks: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, entrepreneurs and “the American voter.”)

The rest of the panel, however, wasn’t sure that Obama was necessarily the right choice. “I don’t see this [election] as a great moment of victory for Obama,” said Lauer, arguing that Obama’s reelection was due more to a national demographic shift than to the candidate himself. Instead, Lauer offered up one of the campaign’s biggest talking points, “the unemployed American worker,” as his Person of the Year.

Another popular subject of discussion was one of Lakshmi’s picks, Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani education activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban member last month and survived, although panelists believed that Yousafzai might be considered more of a symbol than an agent of change herself. Later, Mayor Nutter broadened his nomination to women in general, for having endured attacks both from politicians in the U.S. and worldwide.

Lightening things up, Cranston (who picked “new media” for its role in the Middle East uprisings) also threw out some names in the sports and entertainment arenas, including Jeremy Lin, Usain Bolt, Adele and “mini-Beatles sensation” One Direction.

Stengel wouldn’t give any hints about his own pick (although he admitted earlier that the Person of the Year franchise had gotten criticism for being too American-centric) but did say that the “person” had been mentioned during the discussion. So don’t count out One Direction just yet.