PAIR OF PARAGONS; DUBIOUS AWARDS; Y2K

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Even if they've never been seen in the same room together, it's a safe bet that British entrepreneur deluxe Richard Branson and Arizona senator John McCain are separate people.

But if separate profiles in separate magazines on the newsstand now have it right, they're the same kind of admirable fellow most people would be proud to follow.

Branson, most recently visible for his flight halfway around the world in a balloon, comes to us via the low-profile quarterly Strategy & Business. McCain, who's contemplating a run for the presidency, is a subject of the January George.

Branson, worth about $3.5 billion today, had virtually nothing when he started what became Virgin Records in 1969, at age 19. He turns the common business dictum "stick with what you know" inside out; the pieces of his empire have nothing in common with each other except the Branson touch. He knew nothing about running an airline, but looked at British Airways, saw an opportunity, and Virgin Atlantic took off. More recently, he has come out with Virgin Cola, taking aim at no less than Coca-Cola, perhaps the world's strongest brand. "Tell Richard that something is impossible and watch his eyes light up," S&B quotes David Tait, a Virgin Atlantic honcho.

His employees, who have the right to address him directly at any time they feel the need, adore him: They're just as likely to say they "work for Richard" as to say they work for Virgin. And why not? He insists on fun, is relentlessly enthusiastic, and he considers nothing beneath him. "He flies frequently and usually spends the entire flight chatting with passengers, serving drinks, leading games over the public address system and helping the flight crew with even the most menial tasks," writer Glenn Rifkin reports.

McCain, a Republican, has the allure of integrity, too. He was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and spent five years as a POW, two of them in solitary, all of them in severe pain from the beatings and the deprivation. Because his father was commander of US Pacific forces, his captors saw propaganda gain in freeing him early, but he wouldn't go because it wasn't his turn.

He ran for the House in 1982, and voters have been sending him back to Washington ever since. For months before the November election, Big Tobacco -- angered by his efforts to make it easier to sue cigarette makers and more expensive to buy their products -- crusaded to thwart his reelection, but he won 68 percent of the vote.

Both men are publicity hounds. Branson says his most important employee is his communications director, and he reportedly budgets a quarter of his time for public relations. It's why he was in that balloon. George's Tom Dunkel reports that McCain's staff jokes about his being a "media whore" who once dragged himself out of bed at 3 a.m., in Hawaii, during a wedding-anniversary trip, to be on "Face the Nation."

There are other similarities as well, but there is also this important difference: Branson's commitment to his beliefs is his strongest asset. But in the perverse public life of America -- where the president thinks nothing of adopting the opposition's policies if he can win with them, dissembles under oath, and increases his popularity -- being principled could be McCain's weak point.

"McCain is the kind of man I think we'd all like to be president if we could appoint the president," New Jersey senator Robert Torricelli is quoted as saying. "But John's . . . ability to stand on principle {is} difficult to imagine in a presidential campaign."

That other beacon of rectitude, Jerry Springer, adorns Esquire's January cover, appropriately, if fancifully, bloodied. But the chief attraction is inside, where the Dubious Achievement Awards, like so much else in this publication's recent past, have regained some of their luster. They are mean, and ugly, and often hilarious, and local interests come in for their share of the bludgeoning.

Boston magazine earns an early citation for its "Head Negro in Charge" headline, and George Carlin and Mike Barnicle are listed under the heading "Fun Couples." The celebrated skinniness of Ally McBeal, who works at a Boston law firm, is explained with government figures that say Massachusetts is leaner than all but one other state, and computer imaging illustrates speculation on what she would look like if she came from Indiana (they're No. 1). It's not pretty, and neither is the other Bay State reference, the death of a 20-foot minke whale under the prow of a whale-watching cruise boat out of Barnstable. Hey, pretty funny, guys.

Y2K, a.k.a. the Millennium Bug, may be the end of civilization as we know it, but at least it continues to provide lots of copy for lots of magazines. The Utne Reader touts its "Y2K Citizen's Action Guide," now out on newsstands, and one of Esquire's lesser virtues is Tom Junod's report from Pat Robertson's conference on the digital apocalypse. ("The most important thing is finding hiding places for the Jews," a fellow visitor tells Junod, " . . . so that they can get back to Israel, so that Jesus Christ can come again in glory.")

But it is Vanity Fair that stands out in this trio, with Robert Sam Anson's scream for attention. Some sound bites:

The scale of the problem is vast: There are 1.2 trillion lines of suspect code worldwide, plus 30 billion microprocessers; many of them are linked, and the failure of one could trip millions of others. (That means that yesterday's news that Social Security has been safeguarded is questionable, because it doesn't control all the computers it depends on.)

- "To fix everything in the United States, it was estimated, would require every single one of the 1.92 million software professionals in the country to devote nearly five full months" to the problem, Anson reports. And that's just here. Russia has "11 Chernobyl-type power plants, 22,500 nuclear warheads, and the funds to fix none of them."

- Utah Senator Robert Bennett, considered Congress's foremost Y2K expert, said, "I'm not yet ready to dig a shelter in the backyard. But it might not be a bad idea to have a little extra food and water."

Sounds pretty bad, but maybe Richard Branson could help.