Who Should be Person of the Year?

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So, who would play Mother Nature on the cover of TIME's Person of the Year edition?

"Bea Arthur."

That casting suggestion by NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, responding to a playful question from TIME's Managing Editor Jim Kelly, reflected the dominant motif of Monday's Person of the Year luncheon at TIME's midtown headquarters. The consensus among the panelists assembled to nominate candidates for this year's award was that 2005 was dominated by news events authored by nature, rather than by humans, making it difficult to find individual newsmakers to fit the preferred terms of the award.

This year's first major news story was the Indian Ocean Tsunami, and now the year is coming to a close after the devastating earthquakes in Kashmir, noted Williams. Between those two catastrophes intervened Hurricane Katrina, revealing both human failings and inspiring tales of human kindness and courage.

Cynthia Cooper, the Worldcom whistleblower who was part of a Person of the Year trio in 2003, was inclined to find the heroes of the Katrina story: “The first responders, the victims themselves and the media without whom America would not have learned of their plight.” And, she said, General Russel Honore, who took charge of the rescue effort and restored hope to the people of the Gulf Coast.

CNN's Anderson Cooper (who glibly said, "Mother nature, yeah, she's a b____") toyed with the possibility of nominating bloggers, to honor the work they do (“in their pajamas”) in keeping America's journalists honest. But in the end, he conceded, it had to be Katrina-related, and he nominated the first-responders, “who in this instance were the ordinary people of America, who stepped forward to help their neighbors when their government failed them.”

Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore 2000 presidential campaign, concurred. Brazile, whose own family has lived in New Orleans since 1832, revealed that her marooned 75-year-old father had been rescued by two strangers passing by on a boat. “There was a total system failure at every level of government,” she said. “Our thanks must go to the angels who went in to help others, even when the authorities said they shouldn't go in.”

She also cast her vote for U2 front-man Bono, “for putting a face on African poverty.” Brazile also welcomed the third recommendation from conservative Washington tax reform activist Grover Norquist, who suggested a pairing of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with civil right icon Rosa Parks, who died recently. Brazile hailed Rice's emergence as “the face of American democracy.”

Norquist also suggested the natural disasters, as well as either the voters of Iraq (or, alternately, the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who hopes to thwart them). TIME's own Matthew Cooper, who has been at the center of the criminal investigation into alleged White House leaks of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, suggested that Bill Gates may be worthy of Person of the Year award for his work as a philanthropist. And, ever the White House correspondent, he also suggested that President Bush could be considered for a second year in a row— although this time as “the incredible shrinking president” in light of the extent to which he has lost popular support and seen his initiatives thwarted in the year since his reelection.

But Williams insisted that Mother Nature was the pick that tied everything together: it folded in the White House, the war, energy, poverty and the American drama of race. In the end, he said, it boiled down to this: “Many of the people I saw and met in the Superdome down in New Orleans are not alive any more. That's why I make the argument for Mother Nature.”

Still, if Katrina was the dominant news event in the minds of our panelists, then (Bea Arthur aside) it was once again left to the managing editor and his team to figure out how that fact might be commemorated on the cover of TIME magazine. And also, if there might be contenders our panelists had overlooked.