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Harvard Minds Debate Person of Century

Panelists Present Choices and Engage in Argument; No Conclusions Reached

By Sarah J. Schaffer

A gathering of some of Boston's--and Harvard's--most important people wrestled last night with a question that perplexed them all: Who is the most important person of the century or the millennium?

Harvard faculty comprised four of the five panelists who debated the issue in a Boston Public Library fundraiser at the posh Bostonian Hotel last night.

About 75 people paid $135 each to hear the thoughts of Warburg Professor of Economics emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith, Professor of Geology Stephen J. Gould, Radcliffe Public Policy Fellow Wendy Kaminer, Cowles Professor of Sociology Orlando Patterson and Esquire columnist Mark Leyner as they discussed their picks in the hotel's Seasons restaurant.

Renowned journalist Bill Kovach, curator of the Nieman Foundation, moderated the forum after scheduled moderator Marvin Kalb, who heads the Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, took ill in Washington.

Leyner, whom the program termed the night's "Comic Relief," noted at one point that he--not entirely intentionally--misunderstood the invitation he received to be a panelist at the event.

"When I got this and I saw, 'Who is the Person of the Millennium/Century,' I thought we had been nominated," Leyner said, prompting audience guffaws.

On a more serious note, Gould began the dialogue by citing what was, for him, an "obvious" choice.

"From a purely parochial view as an evolutionary biologist, I have to come down with the...utterly unsurprisingly choice--Charles Darwin," Gould said.

Kovach observed, however, that "millennial terms are too short for [Gould's] thought process," and Gould bore that out in his opening remarks.

"If you granted me all of human history, there's no question [that my choice would be] mitochondrial Eve and y-chromosome Adam, through which all of our chromosomes passed," Gould said.

"And if you use my grandmother's criterion, it's simple--was it good for the Jews?" he joked, saying that the philosopher Maimonides would have topped her list.

Galbraith confined himself to this century.

"Obviously, I do not want to be involved with Shakespeare, Elizabeth, Napoleon or, for that matter, Darwin," the economist said. "The range is just too broad."

Galbraith said he chose Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 because he helped foster a compassionate mood among the American public during the era of the Great Depression and the two World Wars, what Galbraith considers the defining events of our century.

The 87-year-old Galbraith also jovially reminded the panelists that he himself has "covered most of this century" and spoke "with an authority that no one else [on the panel] really has."

Kaminer, who is the author of books on women's equality and a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly, named Roger Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liber- ties Union, as her choice for person of the century.

"He fought to make civil liberties for most Americans a fact of life and not just an ideal," Kaminer said.

After the discussion Kaminer said she did not name a woman precisely because she thought people expected her, as the only female panelist, to name a woman.

"It's also a sad fact of history that when we think of the great names, they tend to be men," she said. If she had chosen a woman of the century, Kaminer said, she might have selected Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

Leyner, for all his comedic flair, chose the only explicitly evil person of the evening: Adolf Hitler.

"I'm choosing Hitler as my millennium figure because in a personal sense...as an impresario of evil, he cut my daughter's century from her millennium by destroying the Polish Jews, the central European Jews," Leyner said. "This individual created a temporal schism for a lot of people. There's no returning to what was destroyed."

Leyner also picked a figure of the century--the fictional Joseph K. from Franz Katka's The Trial who is accused of a crime he cannot comprehend.

Patterson, the author of seven books on racism and poverty, hearkened the farthest back in time for his choice of Martin Luther, the German who in the early sixteenth century posted his 95 theses attacking abuses in the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation, as his person of the millennium.

"I say this not as someone who is necessarily an actively religious person,...but because I think Luther's influence, both directly and indirectly, had a more transforming effect on Western civilization than anyone else that I can think of," Patterson said.

After each person made a presentation, the panelists engaged in good-natured argument over their choices.

Galbraith observed that the thrust of historical circumstance is often more important than the actions of any one person.

Fifty years ago, Galbraith said, he spent the summer interrogating the high ranking Nazis None of them were particularly impressive.

"Our collective judgment on these people who had been brought to the front by the force of history was that on the whole, they were a bunch of drunken thugs," he said.

The evening's discussion proved stimulating enough that moderator Kovach proposed a marketing idea even Galbraith could appreciate:

"It may be the next great parlor game if we can figure out a way to package it," he said.

And Leyner elicited laughter when he raised the antithesis of the night's question.

"I first of all came up with the most unimportant person of the century," he said. "There may be some debate about this--I think not. I chose Sonny Bono."

"I came to, I think, a stunning realization," Leyner continued after the crowd quieted. "Only in the late twentieth century have unimportant people become so important.

"He fought to make civil liberties for most Americans a fact of life and not just an ideal," Kaminer said.

After the discussion Kaminer said she did not name a woman precisely because she thought people expected her, as the only female panelist, to name a woman.

"It's also a sad fact of history that when we think of the great names, they tend to be men," she said. If she had chosen a woman of the century, Kaminer said, she might have selected Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood.

Leyner, for all his comedic flair, chose the only explicitly evil person of the evening: Adolf Hitler.

"I'm choosing Hitler as my millennium figure because in a personal sense...as an impresario of evil, he cut my daughter's century from her millennium by destroying the Polish Jews, the central European Jews," Leyner said. "This individual created a temporal schism for a lot of people. There's no returning to what was destroyed."

Leyner also picked a figure of the century--the fictional Joseph K. from Franz Katka's The Trial who is accused of a crime he cannot comprehend.

Patterson, the author of seven books on racism and poverty, hearkened the farthest back in time for his choice of Martin Luther, the German who in the early sixteenth century posted his 95 theses attacking abuses in the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation, as his person of the millennium.

"I say this not as someone who is necessarily an actively religious person,...but because I think Luther's influence, both directly and indirectly, had a more transforming effect on Western civilization than anyone else that I can think of," Patterson said.

After each person made a presentation, the panelists engaged in good-natured argument over their choices.

Galbraith observed that the thrust of historical circumstance is often more important than the actions of any one person.

Fifty years ago, Galbraith said, he spent the summer interrogating the high ranking Nazis None of them were particularly impressive.

"Our collective judgment on these people who had been brought to the front by the force of history was that on the whole, they were a bunch of drunken thugs," he said.

The evening's discussion proved stimulating enough that moderator Kovach proposed a marketing idea even Galbraith could appreciate:

"It may be the next great parlor game if we can figure out a way to package it," he said.

And Leyner elicited laughter when he raised the antithesis of the night's question.

"I first of all came up with the most unimportant person of the century," he said. "There may be some debate about this--I think not. I chose Sonny Bono."

"I came to, I think, a stunning realization," Leyner continued after the crowd quieted. "Only in the late twentieth century have unimportant people become so important.

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