* He says what he thinks, and says it perfectly
William Safire, 73
Columnist, The New York Times
If someone had told you in 1973 that one of Richard Nixon's speechwriters would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, you might have been flabbergasted. But William Safire delights in flabbergasting. In his two regular columns for The New York Times, he covers politics (right-leaning, but open-minded) and language (learned, but accessible). In 1978, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns on the accounting irregularities of the Carter administration's budget director, Bert Lance, who subsequently resigned. (The two later became friends.) Safire, who quit college to pursue his career, has also written more than 25 books. His work is inventive, surprising, original: "Whether Safire is being silly or serious, reassuring or provocative, wrong or right, or all of these things at once, he is always read," former secretary of state Madeleine Albright has said.
* He inspires a generation to gain and share wisdom
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 78
Founder, The Spiritual Eldering Institute, Boulder, Colorado
Already one of America's most controversial rabbis—he embraced reincarnation and declared that social commitment trumps philosophy and creed—Schachter-Shalomi is now enlisting an interfaith mix of older people to come to terms with their mortality, learn contemplative skills, and share their knowledge with younger generations. "You don't want to leave this world with incompletes," he says. "The extended life span needs extended consciousness and extended awareness. If you don't have extended consciousness along with extended life span, you're just dying longer, not living longer." Through his workshops, conferences, and publications, he wants to inspire people who will act "as guide, mentor, and agent of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the planet, nation, tribe, clan, and family."
* He unveiled the power of DNA fingerprinting
Barry Scheck, 53
He might have been the most reluctant Dream Teammate at the O.J. Simpson trial, but media-savvy Scheck had his own reasons for taking that case: He knew that 1995's Trial of the Century could be a national stage for his specialization, DNA evidence. His surgical dissection of LAPD procedures displayed the remarkable powers, and limits, of genetic fingerprinting. Scheck had been defending DNA testing since the 1980s, and in 1992 co-founded the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic at Yeshiva University's law school. To date, the clinic has used DNA evidence to exonerate 123 people wrongfully imprisoned for crimes such as rape and murder. The resulting publicity has shaken the legal foundations of the death penalty and raised troubling questions about fundamental inequalities in our criminal justice system.
Case closed: Of the Innocence Project, Scheck has said, "If there is any justification for being a lawyer, this is it."
Read case profiles for each of the 123 inmates exonerated by the Innocence Project.
* She leads the fight for women's rights
Eleanor Smeal, 63
President, Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF)
When you hear the term "gender gap," credit Smeal. She discovered the gulf between male and female voting patterns in the 1980s. "The pundits all thought we were crazy," recalls Smeal, who was then president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). But by 2000, both major parties were feverishly wooing "soccer moms." Today, Smeal's causes include improved police response to domestic violence, more equitable Social Security for women, and protection against violent protests at abortion clinics. In 1997, she was one of the first to raise the alarm about the Taliban's repression of women. Smeal now helps Afghan women support themselves by marketing their handicrafts on the FMF website.
Change agent: "Without Ellie Smeal, there would be no women's movement. No single person has had more of an impact on politics and policy," says Kathy Rodgers, president, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.
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