Monday, Apr. 18, 2005

Where Is the Class of 2004?

We're not supposed to know when we peak. It might have been high school or your wedding day or 2001, when you still had a weekly column in TIME Magazine, but we soldier on by fooling ourselves that the best is still ahead. For the 86 people on last year's TIME 100 who didn't make it back on the list this year, however, there is no pretending. With this issue, they have been made all too painfully aware of exactly when their lives began their inevitable decline: 2004. These people are banished to roam the planet like zombies, knowing that their influence has waned, that they have been surpassed by someone younger, better looking, more influence-y. We have inadvertently created 86 Al Gores. I, for one, couldn't wait to tell them. Armed with both lists, I called some of last year's winners and asked them where they thought they had gone so horribly wrong. Most didn't call back, which signaled to me that they had got fat and lazy on their TIME 100 fame. Yes, I'm sure it takes all day to create new CSIs, Mr. Bruckheimer, but you can squeeze in a call.

When Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker made last year's list, TIME likened him to "a rock star," citing references calling him "handsome" and comparing his hair with Robert Plant's. But after the love fest, TIME dropped Pinker. A year ago, things were good: his class gave him a round of applause when the issue came out, and his mom bought 10 copies. He put the accolade both on his c.v. and on the list of accomplishments he sent to the dean at the end of the year.

"He didn't give me a raise though," Pinker says. When forced to reflect on where he went wrong in the past 12 months, Pinker said that not having a new book might have hurt, though he hopes his pro-Larry Summers stance will keep him in the news until his next book comes out in a year or two. Keep hoping, Steve. Robert Plant hair only lasts so long.

When she was named to the list last year, Samantha Power, then just 33 but now more than 34, had won a Pulitzer for her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, and was teaching at Harvard. She was also speaking to Congress about Darfur, which sounds even more frustrating than going to a retirement home to explain why Paris Hilton is famous.

After asking a few questions, I concluded that Power totally wasted her year at the top, never using her TIME 100 title so much as to get restaurant reservations. ("Oh, nothing for two at 8:00? I see. I guess Hu Jintao and B.K.S. Iyengar must have grabbed the last table then?") "I don't know why it didn't help my dating life, and I don't know why I got no Red Sox tickets out of the deal," the now ironically named Power lamented. After some thought, she couldn't help but wonder if it was the photo TIME printed. "I look so steely-eyed and TIME 100-worthy," she says. "Not like any photo I've ever taken." In her defense, though, it's tough when there are only 99 people in your dating pool. And one of them is bin Laden.

The strangest thing I discovered was that even though Pinker and Power both were on the TIME 100 list, both teach at Harvard, both were finalists for the Pulitzer in the same year and both have the same personality defect that caused them to call me back—they had never met. And as if TIME hadn't given them enough already, we will remedy that next week when they will finally talk and laugh and exchange stories of past moments of influence at the TIME 100 party, which, by the way, you are not invited to.

I'm not either. And even though I know in my heart that my greatest success will always lie in my past, there's still a part of my brain that hopes I will one day achieve such great things I'll make the list. Still, I'd rather have the peace of accomplishing more than I set out to do than the hunger that comes with believing success causes happiness. The road downhill, it turns out, is kind of nice.