The Top 5 History Makers of 2008
Credit: Associated Press
Credit: Associated Press

When history books and TV documentaries distill 2008 to its bare bones — down to the handful of people who dominated the mediasphere 24/7 — who will we remember?

There was certainly plenty to talk about this year, from the Summer Olympics in Beijing to the global economic turmoil to the historic U.S. presidential election, and a colorful cast of characters that went along for the ride.

While memory of most of the year’s newsworthy individuals is destined to fade away with the turn of the calendar, we bet these five will stick around to populate future roundups of 2008:

5. T. Boone Pickens

Before the economic meltdown and presidential election took over the airwaves in the latter half of the year, the man of the news hour was eccentric billionaire T. Boone Pickens and his offbeat pitch for weaning America off foreign oil. The "Pickens Plan" proposed a massive shift in focus toward alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power, a move critics say would ultimately cost taxpayers billions and supporters say is the wave of the future. Later in the year, as oil prices tanked, Pickens said his planned wind farm would have to wait. But with oil always on the national agenda, Pickens is sure to keep the country debating for the next few years.

4. Michael Phelps

Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year has more gold than most banks and a bigger wingspan than your average American bald eagle. His primal, poolside scream of joy at winning the 4 x 100 relay with his U.S. teammates and his fingernail win in the 100m butterfly — two of an all-time record eight gold medals for Phelps in Beijing — are tough images to forget. When people think back on the 2008 Olympic Games, they will think of Michael Phelps.

3. Sarah Palin

Polarizing doesn’t even begin to describe the way America, and the world, chose camps on vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin , known more for her looks, affably folksy demeanor and less-than-polished campaign performance than for her political acumen. Love her or hate her, this would-be first female VP made big waves in 2008 and promises to keep shaking things up all the way through to a possible presidential run in 2012.

2. Henry T. Paulson

From relative unknown to household name in just a few short months, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson became one of the most influential people on the planet when he captained the recent $700 billion government bailout of America's banks. The former CEO of Goldman Sachs has an impressive resume to his name, but it will be the bailout and time that will decide whether history judges him as a financial genius or failure.

1. Barack Obama

Could there be another choice? TIME magazine’s Person of the Year, the president-elect, undisputed newsmaker of the year is Barack Obama, senator-turned-hope-giver who rose to political fame faster than you can say, "Yes We Can." Regardless of the events that will unfold during his tenure as leader of the free world, this first African-American president of the United States will be remembered as the story of 2008.

Heather Whipps is a freelance writer with an anthropology degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Her History Today column appears regularly on LiveScience.