OSAMA BIN LADEN, 52, terrorist
His network of Islam-inspired terrorists wounded the United States with a shocking attack, drawing the West into a global confrontation. He hasn't been seen in more than nine years, but his occasional recordings remind us that this conflict will not end soon.
"Through his own travel and that of his family, he knew something of Europe and America, but by age 15, he had already erected a wall against its allures. He felt implicated by the West ... and yet ... he lacked a sophisticated or subtle understanding of Western society and history. He used his passport, but he never really left home." Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens (Penguin Press, 2008)
Barack Obama, 48, president of the United States
In a year, he changed the complexion of a decade. The nation's first black president smashed barriers many thought couldn't be broken. And yet what he has accomplished can't compare to what is expected of him.
Obama is "the first president who has grasped the possibilities of today's high-velocity, high-density, highly variegated media landscape. … He's done books and audio books; he commands audiences on both YouTube and from the podium; he BlackBerrys; he makes a nice photo. He recognizes that … a presidency can no longer survive on one message per day or one press conference per day. Instead, you have to turn on a fire hose." Jennifer Senior, writing in New York magazine in August
44, author of the Harry Potter series
In an era when video games and computers were luring people away from books, she conjured a gifted, bespectacled boy whose adventures made eager readers out of a generation of kids.
"Rowling calls her time with Harry 'one of the longest relationships of my adult life,' her rock through bereavement, a turbulent marriage and divorce, single motherhood, changes of country, fear of failure — and transcendent joy, on the day a wise man at Bloomsbury offered her $2,250 and agreed to print 1,000 books." Time magazine, 1997
Though stained by scandal at the end of the decade, his brilliance as a golfer transformed the sport, making him the first billionaire athlete and one of the most recognizable people on the planet.
"Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. Because he's playing a sport that's international. Because he's qualified through his ethnicity to accomplish miracles. … He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power." Earl Woods, Tiger's father, quoted in Sports Illustrated in 1996
54, co-founder and CEO, Apple
He untethered us from our hardware — our laptops and cameras, our music collections and TVs. He put our lives in beautiful packages, dropped them in our pockets and helped define what is cool.
"He is the rare businessman with legitimate worldwide celebrity. (His quirks and predilections are such common knowledge that they were knowingly parodied on an episode of The Simpsons.) He pals around with U2's Bono. Consumers who have never picked up an annual report or even a business magazine gush about his design taste, his elegant retail stores, and his outside-the-box approach to advertising. ('Think different,' indeed.)" Fortune magazine, recently declaring Jobs "CEO of the Decade"
George W. Bush,
63, former president
His presidency defined the decade. He arrived in controversy, united us in our grief, and led us into a war that divided us bitterly. His imprint on this country and its standing abroad will be felt for decades.
"Bush campaigns with the eager self-delight of a natural ham. … When he says he wants your vote, he does not just mouth the words but follows them through with his entire body, rising to his toes, tilting toward you yearningly. When he works his way along the edge of the stage, waving, shaking hands, he has the concentration of an athlete in the thrall of his game." Philip Gourevitch, writing in the New Yorker in 2004
Larry Page (top) and Sergey Brin,
Both 36, Google founders
They gave us a window to the world shaped like a drinking straw laid on its side. Reaching through that slot, we touch all of our curiosity and desire.
"Google's brilliant because it architects its system so that, when people do what they want to do, they give something to Google. When I do a search, I give Google my evaluation of what the best search is. Google profits from that." Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, quoted in the New Yorker in 2008
55, media star
Her entertainment empire extends into radio, movies, magazines, Broadway shows and (soon) a cable TV network, yet she remains the BFF to millions of women around the world.
"At the far end of her office … hangs a significant piece of art. … The wall-length image is called Having and features two African-American female entrepreneurs at the turn of the 20th century. Winfrey imagines they were dressmakers by the design of their frocks. Those two women and what they represent, she says, are a source of inspiration and strength. 'Before I go into a really serious meeting,' she explains, 'I actually come to the wall.' " Sonia Alleyne, writing in Black Enterprise magazine in 2008
54, chairman, Microsoft; co-chair, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The ambitions of the world's richest man are as great in charity as they were in business: cure major infectious diseases, eradicate poverty and end illiteracy. No other private individual has more power to improve the lives of more of the world's inhabitants.
"The foundation's endowment is nearly $29 billion — more than the gross domestic product of Tanzania — and its principal goal is simple: to rid the world of disease, particularly the many illnesses that are essentially ignored because they affect the world's poorest people. 'Global health is our lifelong commitment,' Gates told me. 'Until we reduce the burden on the poor so that there is no real gap between us and them, that will always be our priority. I am not so foolish as to say that will happen. But that's our goal.' " Michael Specter, writing in the New Yorker in 2005