How We Made the Choice

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T O  O U R  R E A D E R SBy WALTER ISAACSON, Managing EditorWhat a year. what a week.While the U.S. House was preparing to impeach the President and American missiles were raining upon Iraq, we were assembling our traditional year-end issue. The news reinforced our decision, which we had been wrestling with until the final days, to choose as our Men of the Year Bill Clinton and his pursuer Kenneth Starr, whose shared obstinacy but radically different personalities and values caused them to become entwined in a sullied embrace and paired for history. The year drew to a close the way it had opened in January, with events being driven by what these two men had wrought.For better or for worse, for good or for ill. That has always been a part of our definition of Man or Woman of the Year: the person or persons who most affected the news and our lives, for good or for ill, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse. In the major story of 1998, there was plenty of for worse on all fronts.For the first time in memory, our decision came down to the final week. When we began deliberating in early November, the midterm elections made it appear that the Monica Lewinsky scandal might recede into being but a tale of sound and fury signifying little. The global economic turmoil and roiling stock markets could turn out, it seemed, to be of more lasting importance, so there were folks such as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to consider. There were also some inspiring options, such as the Irish peacemakers or that icon of nostalgia and exploration John Glenn.Another intriguing possibility was the gentle baseball slugger Mark McGwire. When he came to our offices in November to be interviewed and photographed, normally nonchalant journalists lined the corridors just to catch his smile. We allowed ourselves to hope that years hence, we might recall 1998 for his new single-season home run record, the way 1961 is associated with Roger Maris, whose mark McGwire broke. No such luck. But we felt that his tale served as a sweet antidote to the big story of the year.You'll also find a revealing look at Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen Tumulty and Nancy Gibbs, with exclusive behind-the-scenes photographs by Diana Walker. It helps, I hope, to put not only the First Lady but also her marriage and her husband into a human context. For a while, as you may have read in various news media (we're not great at keeping secrets), she too was our leading contender for person of the year acknowledgement. Mrs. Clinton's strength and her almost surreal ability to assert her dignity were remarkable to some and mystifying to others. She also, for many months, helped determine how the nation framed the scandal debate by portraying it as a partisan battle and disgusting prosecutorial invasion of personal privacy. So why didn't we choose her? Sentimentally, a lot of us wanted to; I personally was fascinated and impressed by her. But at decision time it came down to who, in the end, had the most impact on the way the news actually unfolded throughout the year. For better or worse, she ended up having less influence than her adversaries on the year's headlines and history.Kenneth Starr, who, in his interviews with TIME, compares himself to the fabled tortoise, turned out to be more enduring in his own relentless quest to frame the debate as a public, legal and constitutional issue. I visited with him earlier this month in the windowless beige conference room where every weekday this year he marshaled his troops in pursuit of Bill Clinton. He insisted that he had been falsely caricatured and thus agreed to spend hours last week with Michael Weisskopf and Eric Pooley as well as to open his office to photographer Karin Cooper.When Captain Ahab, in his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, had a doubloon nailed to the mast of the Pequod, each member of his crew saw reflected in it a different meaning. So too was it with the findings that Starr nailed to our consciousness this year, and so too was it with Starr himself and Clinton himself. Decades hence, we will still be debating the meaning of the great Clinton-Starr struggle and picking at the lingering wounds. But I hope this issue of TIME can further the process of putting both the personal qualities of these two men and their public actions into a human perspective.