A year ago, your humble correspondent described 2007
as "the year of our discontent." Discontented people are prone to want change, and the American people determined that, right or wrong, they would do something different in 2008. They elected Barack Obama President.
At the start of the year, pundits declared the New England Patriots and Hillary Clinton to be "inevitable." Inevitability proved to be over-rated as a concept in both instances. Barack Obama stunned the political establishment by winning Iowa. He lost New Hampshire after his icy comment that Ms. Clinton was "likable enough" helped garner sympathy for the challenger, but then he won a series of contests in February in the aftermath of Super Tuesday that all but clinched his primary victory. Just as with a chicken with its head cut off, death did not come quickly for the Clinton campaign, which acknowledged Mr. Obama's triumph by attempting to change the rules of the campaign after the fact, arguing that Mr. Obama could not win a general election, and contending that the Illinois Senator was not qualified to answer the phone in the White House at 3:00 a.m. For his part, Bill Clinton made a series of remarks that resulted in accusations, by Democrats, that he was an angry race baiter. Ultimately, Mr. Obama would react to these indignities by announcing that he would nominate Ms. Clinton to be his Secretary of State.
On the Republican side, the candidates failed to arouse slumbering voters. In fact, Fred Thompson, who had briefly excited some conservatives, lulled them back to sleep with his own inactivity. Eventually, he woke up long enough to exit the race. Rudy Giuliani decided to try to win by losing all of the early races. It was a strategy that could have worked in 1968, but not in any primary year since. Mitt Romney took a lot of positions that conservatives should have liked, but voters also noticed that he had come to all of those positions lately. A former Baptist preacher, Mike Huckabee, from Hope, Arkansas, of all places, excited social conservatives while annoying others with his unabashed populism. Oh, and Ron Paul excited the fringes on the internet. John McCain kept plugging away as the candidate who was a somewhat known quantity and who had a compelling life story, and ultimately Republicans decided it was the best that they could do.
While these and other candidates were running for office, things were going on in real life. People had been talking about a housing bubble for years, but its bursting came as a surprise to financial experts who did not know that housing prices ultimately might have something to do with the ability of people to afford them. It was a bad year for experts. The same ones who failed to see the coming of the housing mess also speculated that the price of oil, which reached $150/barrel in the summer, would run straight up to $200. In December, it fell below $40.
The price of food also skyrocketed in the summer, helped along by policies that encouraged putting corn into the nation's gas tanks. Congress attacked high food prices by passing legislation subsidizing already high prices for crops and paying farmers not to grow them. Similarly, when oil prices were high, Congress went home without doing anything before eventually passing a bill allowing drilling where oil is either non-existent or unreachable. Once gas prices fell, Congress went back to tilting at windmills. However, in Oregon, environmentalists, heretofore seemingly unaware that generated electricity had to get to those who used it, opposed windmill farms because they would require the erection of transmission lines. However, candidate Obama did have a proposal for dealing with high fuel costs. Warned at a campaign event that the people had no oil, Mr. Obama responded, "Then, let them inflate," or something to that effect.
However, one should not think that Congress did nothing in the first half of the year while the nation struggled. A House committee subpoenaed Roger Clemens in order to lecture him about truth telling and steroid use. Regarding agriculture issues, another committee explored the use of drugs by thoroughbreds. At the end of the year, having solved all of the important problems, some members of Congress would like to take up the issue of a national championship in college football.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose pen helped fell the Soviet Union, and William Buckley, whose writing helped foster modern American conservatism, reached the end of their days. On the journalistic front, Tony Snow, after a long battle with cancer, and Tim Russert, after a sudden heart attack, left this world. Michael Crichton also passed away.
For different reasons, it was a bad year for politicians. Democrats showed themselves anxious to prove that Republicans don't have a monopoly on scandal. Eliot Spitzer will be forever known as Client Number 9, and John Edwards ran around on his cancer stricken wife. Charles Rangel, who chairs the committee in charge of recommending changes to the tax code, blames his inability to understand that code for what looks to many like tax fraud. The Governor of Illinois heard that Sarah Palin had tried (legitimately) to sell a jet on e-bay, and he thought he might do the same with a U.S. Senate seat.
American education remains in disarray, and events in north Texas illustrate the chaos of schools nationally, as well as the national quest for mediocrity. A high school in Grapevine declined to honor a graduating student as its valedictorian because she had excelled too much, completing her requirements in three years instead of four. The Grand Prairie School District petitioned the state to allow it to teach less to students as a reward for learning -- they wanted to give up to 8 days off to students passing the state mandated TAKS exam. The Dallas Independent School District, which has had 7 superintendents in the last 11 years, suddenly discovered a structurally caused $86 million deficit and had to lay off 600 employees after the school year started.
Religion also suffered from notoriety. Barack Obama's pastor was caught on tape vehemently imploring God to condemn the nation to hell. John Hagee caused Mr. McCain consternation by referring to the Catholic Church as a harlot. Joel Osteen inspired conservative Christians through his dismissals of basic Christian truths -- such as sin and salvation. American Episcopal churches faced the unhappy choice of accepting the loss of biblical authority in their denomination or leaving their communions. To date, three dioceses have left. On a happier note, megachurch pastor Rick Warren proved to be the only debate moderator (in contrast to an enormous array of journalists otherwise filling the role) who seemed to be up to the task of helping the nation learn things about the candidates.
The state of Texas made national news by removing over 400 children living at a polygamist compound in the western part of the state and charging that every one of them was a victim of abuse. After spending millions of dollars on case management and legal costs, the children were ultimately returned home when the state failed in court to justify their seizure.
Proving that some things never change, the Chicago Cubs, who last won the World Series in 1908, again failed to win it in 2008. The Dallas Cowboys brought Pacman Jones to the city and, not to be outdone in the lack of character department, the Stars signed Sean Avery. Both players ended up serving suspensions for conduct away from the field of play. On the other hand, there were some inspiring stories. In football, the Giants of New York proved to be giant killers, slaying the previously unbeaten New England team. Michael Phelps now has won more gold medals than he can count on his fingers. Josh Hamilton came to Texas and inspired the nation with a great story of personal redemption. The Tampa Bay nine went to the World Series for the first time.
The fall political campaign began with a rock star style performance by Barack Obama that was soon eclipsed by the vice-presidential nomination of Sarah Palin. Ms. Palin had risen to the governorship of her state by beating back the political establishment and taking on political corruption while maintaining high popularity ratings, but the Washington elite deemed her incompetent because she didn't have a good interview with Katie Couric. Nonetheless, any momentum the Republicans had hoped for was stymied by the emergence of a financial crisis. The President, who was of the same party as those that had taken to calling Barack Obama a "socialist," worked with Democrats to approve $700 billion to do something -- no one is quite sure what -- with the financial services industry, or with the auto industry, or somewhere. Anyway, Barack Obama raced to his historic triumph in November. Republicans, ignoring the unpopular President, the unpopular war, and the financial crisis, wondered if they should blame John McCain or social conservatives for their crushing defeat. Most Americans, deeply concerned over the current recession, are hoping the incoming President does well. Politicians in both parties, and lobbyists representing every imaginable constituency, are positioning themselves with regard to plans to spend unprecedented amounts of money in the early days of 2009 in the name of economic stimulus.
2008 was not a great year for movies. In arguably the most entertaining light film of the year, an overly earnest, dull, average looking, middle aged egghead was married to Charlize Theron. In previous years, I would have considered that story line to be entirely implausible, but personal events this year have taught me that it can happen and have caused me to look forward to more changes in the coming year.
Both personally and otherwise, it will be interesting to see what 2009 will bring. Personally, it will be change. In the nation, one can be pardoned for hoping for a little more stability.