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By Walter Isaacson

What an amazing cast of characters! What a wealth of heroes and villains to choose from!

Some shook the world by arriving: Gandhi at the sea to make salt, Lenin at the Finland Station. Others by refusing to depart: Rosa Parks from her seat on the bus, that kid from the path of the tank near Tiananmen Square. There were magical folks who could make freedom radiate through the walls of a Birmingham jail, a South African prison or a Gdansk shipyard.

Others made machines that could fly and machines that could think, discovered a mold that conquered infections and a molecule that formed the basis of life. There were people who could inspire us with a phrase: fear itself, tears and sweat, ask not. Frighten us with a word: heil! Or revise the universe with an equation: E=mc2.

So how can we go about choosing the Person of the Century, the one who, for better or worse, personified our times and will be recorded by history as having the most lasting significance?

Let's begin by noting what our century will be remembered for. Out of the fog of proximity, three great themes emerge:

-The grand struggle between totalitarianism and democracy.

-The ability of courageous individuals to resist authority in order to secure their civil rights.

-The explosion of scientific and technical knowledge that unveiled the mysteries of the universe and helped secure the triumph of freedom by unleashing the power of free minds and free markets.

The century of democracy

Some people, looking at the first of these themes, sorrowfully insist that the choice has to be Hitler, Fuhrer of the fascist genocides and refugee floods that plagued the century. He wrought the Holocaust that redefined evil and the war that reordered the world.

Competing with him for such devilish distinction is Lenin, who snatched from obscurity the 19th century ideology of communism and devised the modern tools of totalitarian brutality. He begat not only Stalin and Mao but in some ways also Hitler, who was enchanted by the Soviets' terror tactics. Doesn't the presence of such evil-and the continued eruption of totalitarian brutality from Uganda to Kosovo-make a mockery of the rationalists' faith that progress makes civilizations more civilized? Isn't Hitler, alas, the person who most influenced and symbolized this most genocidal of centuries?

No. He lost. So did Lenin and Stalin. Along with the others in their evil pantheon, and the totalitarian ideologies they represented, they are destined for the ash heap of history. If you had to describe the century's geopolitics in one sentence, it could be a short one: Freedom won. Free minds and free markets prevailed over fascism and communism.

So a more suitable choice would be someone who embodied the struggle for freedom: Franklin Roosevelt, the only person to be TIME's Man of the Year thrice (for 1932, 1934 and 1941). He helped save capitalism from its most serious challenge, the Great Depression. And then he rallied the power of free people and free enterprise to defeat fascism.

Other great leaders were part of this process. Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler even earlier than Roosevelt did, when it took far more courage. Harry Truman, a plainspoken man with gut instincts for what was right, forcefully began the struggle against Soviet expansionism, a challenge that Roosevelt was too sanguine about. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev helped choreograph the conclusion of that sorry empire's strut upon the stage. So too did Pope John Paul II, a Pole with a passion for both faith and freedom. And if you were to pick a hero who embodied America's contribution to winning the fight for freedom, it would probably be not Roosevelt, but instead the American G.I.

Nor is it proper to mythologize Roosevelt. The New Deal was at times a hodgepodge of conflicting economic ideas, marked more by enthusiasm than by coherence. It restored Americans' faith and hopes, saved them from fear itself, but never really managed to end the Depression. The war did that.

Nevertheless, Franklin Roosevelt stands out among the century's political leaders. With his first-class temperament, wily manipulations and passion for experimentation, he's the jaunty face of democratic values. Thus we pick him as the foremost statesman and one of three finalists for Person of the Century. That may seem, to non-Americans, parochial. True, but this was, as our magazine's founder Henry Luce dubbed it in 1941, the American Century-politically, militarily, economically and ideologically.

When Roosevelt took office at the beginning of 1933 (the same week that Hitler assumed emergency powers in Germany), unemployment in the U.S. had, in three years, jumped from 4 million to 12 million, at least a quarter of the work force. Fathers of hungry kids were trying to sell apples on the street. F.D.R.'s bold experiments ("Above all, try something") included many that failed, but he brought hope to millions and some lasting contributions to the nation's foundation: Social Security, minimum wages, insured bank deposits and the right to join unions. Henceforth the national government (in the U.S. and most everywhere else) took on the duty of managing the economy and providing capitalism with a social safety net.

By New Year's Day of 1941, the Depression still lingered, and the threat from Hitler was growing. Roosevelt went to his second-floor White House study to draft the address that would launch his unprecedented third term. There was a long silence, uncomfortably long, as his speechwriters waited for him to speak. Then he leaned forward and began dictating.

"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms, " he said. He proceeded to list them: freedom of expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. One of the great themes of this century was the progress made toward each of them.

Roosevelt made another great contribution: he escorted onto the century's stage a remarkable woman, his wife Eleanor. She served as his counterpoint: uncompromisingly moral, earnest rather than devious, she became an icon of feminism and social justice in a nation just discovering the need to grant rights to women, blacks, ordinary workers and the poor. She discovered the depth of racial discrimination while touring New Deal programs (on a visit to Birmingham in 1938, she refused to sit in the white section of the auditorium), and subsequently peppered her husband with questions over dinner and memos at bedtime. Even after her husband's death, she remained one of the century's most powerful advocates for social fairness.

One political leader who rivals Roosevelt in embodying freedom's fight is Winston Churchill. Indeed, it's possible to imagine a President other than Roosevelt leading America through the war, but it's nearly impossible to imagine someone other than Churchill turning the world's darkest moments into Britain's finest hour.

He despised tyranny with such a passion that he, and by extension his nation, was willing to stand alone against Hitler when it was most critical. And unlike Roosevelt, he came early to the crusade against Soviet tyranny as well. His eloquent speeches strengthened the faith of all freedom-loving people in both the righteousness of their struggle and the inevitability of their cause.

So why is he not Person of the Century? He was, after all, TIME's Man of the Half-Century in 1950. Well, the passage of time can alter our perspective. A lot has happened since 1950. It has become clear that one of the great themes of the century has been the success of those who resisted authority in order to seek civil rights...

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