It’s a funny thing about reflecting on a year that’s passed. Unless you’re among the few that keep daily diaries or blogs, it can all appear to be a blur. Then when you sit down and consider everything that transpired, you wondered how you managed to keep up – let alone get set for the next year. Just looking at all the talent that has passed on alone can leave you breathless.
Such is the case for 2010, whose waning hours not only closes out a year, but also the first decade of the 21st century. The dawn of this “post-modern, post-racial” age offered plenty of examples that would challenge long-held assumptions of what life would be like in an era closer to George Jetson-styled flying cars than Model-T hoopties.
So as we flip back to the last year of the century’s turn, there’s plenty to mull, from the constantly twisting political fortunes of America’s first black president to the environmental and economic futures of Haiti and the Gulf states to the ongoing saga of redemption for the NFL’s most notorious quarterback. Here’s an A-Z recap:
It became the new buzz word among the economist set and on the global stage as European countries on the brink of financial meltdown sought to stiffen their upper lips and purse strings, slashing budgets like groundskeeper after crabgrass. As unemployment lines grew longer, people grumbled louder and economies grew at glacial paces, if at all. There were exceptions, such as Germany, which touted its tough self-discipline as the reason why it escaped the financial catastrophe engulfing its neighbors relatively unscathed. As the leader in the austerity parade, Chancellor Angela Merkel channeled Margaret Thatcher-cum-Uncle Scrooge as she fought her counterparts on bailing out fiscal basketcases like Greece, Portugal Ireland and Spain – and even her own sagging poll numbers. The crises threatened the kumbaya harmony the single currency Euro was supposed to institutionalize. World leaders finally worked out a semblance of a plan, to the balks of conservatives everywhere, perhaps saving the globe from dipping into an even deeper recession – or plunging their grandchildren into economic bondage for the ages.
BP oil spill
Fitting that this disaster leads the list, as its real impact has yet to be uncovered, and may not for generations. If sales on four-headed Gulf shrimp emerge in the years ahead, it’ll be clear as to why. The Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20 and the billions of crude oil that invaded the Gulf of Mexico in the months afterward riveted the nation and the world. A spat between the wedded allies brought about hostilities the likes of which had not been seen since the original Tea Party as Britons took offense at Americans demanding that BP dip into its profits (and theoretically, their pension holdings) to pay for cleanup efforts. Meanwhile, in places such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, brown and black sludge crept onto shorelines and swallowed birds and sea life alike. The ecological damage to tenuous wetlands and the economic fallout from fishers and shrimpers, and all their related industries, soured many on the response efforts of the Obama Administration. Neither BP nor the administration would fess up to what the administration knew of the depth of the problem, after faulty estimates of how much oil bubbled into the sea. BP had its spin team working overtime, buying up Google ad space, launching a TV offensive and trying to downplay when BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg mentioned the company’s concern for “small people,” attributing it all to translation difficulties. But when Obama pushed to secure a BP-sponsored fund to pay for the cleanup – rather than using taxpayer dollars – GOP legislators likened it to “Chicago-style politics” and U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) apologized to BP front man Tony Heyward, costing him chairmanship of the House energy committee. Heyward was later sent to Siberia, literally.
The story of numbers, faith and technology riveted the world. For two months, 33 men stood trapped some 2,000 feet beneath the earth after a mine caved, with only a 3-inch hole providing any light or contact with the world above. Tearful families fearing the worst sent SOS prayers and held vigils. The men redefined camaraderie, surviving early on by sharing a single tin of canned fish, a few crackers and swigs of water until reinforcements swirled down the hole. It took an international effort of engineering and moxie to rescue the men, hoisting them upward using a cylindrical capsule about three feet wide. Reporters from across the globe huddled in the vicinity, providing wall-to-wall coverage from every angle. Each man’s story was relayed by anxious anchors as breaking news across cable and network TV. Drama came by watching each rescue effort, along with what happened when each man reached the surface. Few were as entertaining as the spectacle of Yonni Barrios, who was met by his girlfriend, not his wife, who boycotted the rescue efforts. Overall, it was a media ratings bonanza, but one with a happy ending – and possible made-for-TV movies or book deals in the works for the survivors.
At one point, a paper bag test would keep African Americans from even being eligible for certain societal niceties. For gays and lesbians in service to their country, it was an admission – or targeted revelation – of their sexual orientation that would rip away their employment, rank, benefits and dignity. When Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was introduced during the Clinton Administration, it was hailed as the great compromise on how to handle the discomfiting conundrum of the LGBTQ presence in the military. President Obama campaigned on the pledge of ending DADT, and caught heat from that same constituency as well as the usual voices from the right fringe about his ultra-liberal, socialist ways. Obama pressed on and did it Sinatra style – his way. Fearing a court or presidential order would cause more disruption, particularly in the midst of two wars, the Conciliator-in-Chief sought buy-in from the brass and Congressional repeal. He asked the military to do their own studies, which forced many to confront the hypocrisy that stood staring at them: the inanity of discharging skilled and valued personnel based on bedroom practices and, worst still, preaching the value of integrity among troops while forcing scores of others to lie to their comrades in arms daily. U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA), an Iraq War veteran, beat the drum and led the cheers to right this wrong, from the House floor to the 2008 Democratic National Convention to losing his seat amid the GOP midterm wash. But his advocacy in the House shoved the snowball that became one of the major pieces of civil rights legislation of the modern era. With DADT disbanded and a presidential order to allow LGBTQ folks equal access to hospitalized partners, queer disbelievers will have to pick a new reason why they can’t/shouldn’t trust this president. Expect a ramp up for gay marriage.
Elizabeths – Edwards and Warren
The former was the doubly-suffering wife of an ambitious yet fatally flawed politician. The latter is the woman that scares the bejeezus out of men in pinstripes, be they on the Hill or the Street. For many, Elizabeth Edwards was the model of class and grace, having tackled the death of her teen-aged son, two bouts of cancer and a philandering husband whose fling produced a child at the height of her stress. She lost her battle with cancer, but won hearts and admiration the world over. Elizabeth Warren shot out of the ivied towers of Harvard and aimed for protecting the American middle class from the gouging techniques that had become standard practice in the financial sectors, and pardoned by their Congressional enablers. Fighting tooth and nail, the folksy professor conspired with the president to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – and a permanent bull’s eye on her and her efforts from character assassins on the right.
Farmers – black and Native Americans
Those who live by the land will tell you loans for the land are what helps keep them aloft – and African-American and Native American farmers had endured decades of outright discrimination in the process, with stunning lack of intervention by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The 1997 case of Pigford v. Glickman was set to reverse that and provide a settlement of $50,000 to qualified farmers that could prove claims of racial bias. But the judgment lingered without a payday for another decade. GOP members in the U.S. House cried that the bill was fraud waiting to happen, but it moved ahead in the lingering moments of a Democratic majority. President Obama signed the $4.6 billion class-action settlement into law in December, ending a generations-old struggle for equal recognition and treatment. Too bad it wasn’t enough to silence the Obama-isn’t-black-enough crowd, which continues to carp on.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (retired – forcibly)
The wars in the Middle East launched in the Bush Administration amid the hysteria induced by 9/11 remain a quagmire of epic proportions. For every step forward come three backward – and the unfortunate body bag count to prove it. Any honest person can admit that the standard term of “victory” is a lot more complicated than the patriotic jingoism Americans crave. That has overinflated the egos of some in the military who forget that above all, is a chain of command. Such was the case for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who shot off his mouth to a Rolling Stone reporter about his thoughts on his civilian masters, macho-man style. So scathing were his remarks, President Obama faced a choice at a critical time during the ongoing Afghan campaign: remove his second leader there and chance destabilizing troop morale or retain a loudmouth who broke all the rules and highlight the double-standard most enlisted feel exist. In the end, Obama made McChrystal pay the piper and gave him the boot. Don’t be surprised to see the deflated macho man puff up again on a GOP presidential campaign trail, if not ticket, in 2012.
It was the policy battle royal that came to a head, where the president was called everything except a child of God or Satan (though mentions of Mephistopheles might be found if those angry placards are scanned closely enough). He was intent on ripping away time-honored American prized health care options, such as being dropped by insurers due to pre-existing conditions, booting babies born imperfect, jacking up prices or capping benefits when illness strikes and coverage is needed most. And that Nancy Pelosi, with her gavel in hand, dared to act like she actually ran the U.S. House of Representatives! Watching this idea – one elusive since Teddy Roosevelt’s day – become the law of the land was ugly, with flames fanned by opportunists more interested in claiming power through fear than care for the masses through compassion. In the end, President Obama reigned victorious, but his audacity cost him the House and the new GOP leadership and its think tanks have vowed to undo it. Smells like Washington spirit. Or something.
It was the tablet PC that ate the competition, despite rumored release dates, fits and starts that left Apple lovers breathless and converted PC users. Tech gurus had been bopping around, trying to perfect a tablet computer that would be accessible and desirable for a few years now. Apple upped the ante, just as it did with its smash digital music player, adding affordability to the hit list. The lines to the store weren’t as impressive as those for the revolutionary iPhone of a few years back, but the reviews and raves have been steadier. Now, the system operates on both AT&T and Verizon networks. And the device has flipped the entire world of publishing has been turned on its ear. Newspapers and magazines are retrofitting for this new platform, and Amazon’s Kindle book reader finally got some serious competition. Of course, with the iPad, there are those other favorite details, like WiFi, email, web browsing, gaming, photo editing . . ..
Unfortunate slips of the tongue happen. In the case of veteran newsman and opinion maker Juan Williams, his commentary on FOX News became a bit too much for his NPR employers to take. So they pink slipped him, in the sloppiest way possible, opening up all sorts of moaning about liberal media biases, assaults on the First Amendment and, yes, even the race card. As NPR officials mucked around in the mess they helped create, Williams boogied on down and settled into his digs at “fair-and-balanced” FOX as a permanent, rather than a moonlighting, gig, with a sweet payday for his troubles.
Korea – divided and deadlier
North Korea has long resembled the bratty antics of the mythical middle child, starved for attention and prone to doing almost anything to get it. That has left its neighbors to the south in awkward situations as their northern cousins throw tantrum after tantrum. But South Korea is taking a ballsier approach as of late, frustrated with China’s acquiescence with the ever-paranoid Kim Jong-il, who’s in the midst of a succession handoff to his youngest, untested son, Kim Jong-un. Nuclear weaponry and instability make for a nasty mix on the perpetually problematic peninsula.
Since a picture speaks 1,000 words, let’s have this one sum up the antics of the shock singer who has been scrambling to occupy the pop-performance artist space left vacant since Madonna turned to motherhood and put her clothes back on. Yes, it is a dress made of meat. Like her forebear, Lady Gaga revels in and reviles celebrity. Upnotes: when she turned political, she pushed against DADT. And at least she can carry a note, which puts her ahead of most of the pop princess pack.
Whenever there’s a negative word going around in the national media, there’s little doubt that an Obama critic somehow has a finger in it somewhere. Such is the case with what should be an inspiring story, that of a man who went horribly left, found help and is striving to recapture glory he once took for granted. Michael Vick went from football hero to demon in the eyes of America when the one-time franchise quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons was convicted for dog fighting and animal abuse. The horrific incidents detailed in the case were stomach turning, and Vick went to federal prison for his crimes, just as his endorsement deals were coming into full fruition. The Philadelphia Eagles picked him up once he was released, to the consternation of fans that often split along racial lines. Then a funny thing happened. He played, with MVP-intensity, at long last. He scrubbed his life. He earned respect, the Philly way, the hard way. Dismantling Washington (and one-time Eagle and mentor Donovan McNabb) and flipping an apparent loss to the Giants into a breathtaking come-from-behind win made for highlight reel nirvana. Then came the snippet of an interview when he said he’d like to own a dog. Strangely enough, the second part of his comments, about demonstrating how to treat animals with respect, failed to surface. And then, when the president called Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to laud him for giving a second chance to a convicted felon, the gates of right-wing hell opened, with ridiculous calls for Vick’s execution. Too bad those same outraged puppy lovers can’t seem to focus their attention on the ongoing misery in Haiti or catching a libidinous strangler in Philadelphia.
Natural disasters: Haiti and Pakistan
In January, the world’s heart was ripped from its chest as we watched the horrific scenes pouring out of Haiti. The 7.0 earthquake in one of the world’s poorest nations had the twin devastating effect of lingering death and excruciating survival. Especially painful was watching children instantly maimed and orphaned. Or ex-pats here feeling helpless grief. The images and pleas for help unhinged wallets normally slammed shut after holiday shopping, particularly amid a recession that wore out its welcome months ago. Text message donations and all-star, all-channel telethons highlighted the best America had to offer as money for relief efforts came in record numbers. More bizarre moments erupted later, such as entertainer and philanthropist Wyclef Jean pledging to run for president of his native land, despite not being a resident. Worst, the billions in pledged aid from countries around the world has yet to reach the island, with hundreds of thousands still displaced and infrastructure and stability as weak as the rebar-free buildings that collapsed like paper.
And then, a few months later, Pakistan faced unheralded flooding and all the ailments that connect to such catastrophe, ranging from cholera to starvation, slammed the country as well. In total, some 14 million were estimated to have been impacted, according to the United Nations. But with Pakistan so closely identified as a safe haven for the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorists and its continued power struggle with a rising India for domination in South Asia, there was a stark difference in the response, despite the devastation. Taliban leadership even exhorted Pakistani officials to shun Western aid, the same type of support groups often attacked by the insurgents. Others worry that the lack of enthusiasm will cultivate more desperation and hate – ample fields for future terrorists-in-training.
The absolute darling of the nation’s left-leaning crowd, his daily countdown of stories and excortication of most things Republican and all things FOX News remains one of the highest rated programs on MSNBC. But he ran into bumps this year, from the death of his father to wading into the murky politics of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and the sexual assault charges pending against the intelligence world’s Public Enemy No. 1. Suspended after donating to Democratic candidates during the midterms, a violation of NBC News policies, he returned to his chair somewhat chastened this fall but no less virulent.
The name went from a bad joke on the nation to an illness for which a cure has yet to be found. First the “momma grizzly” found a band of people to prop for office, with a decent win-loss ratio, reviving fears that the American intellectual vacuum that provided George W. Bush with two terms may have resurfaced. Still on the hunt for money after resigning her governorship of Alaska, she “penned” two books, went on the attack against the first lady (and had to slither back after the blowback from her GOP colleagues and would-be 2012 rivals), was handed a commentary post on FOX News (surprise!) and a reality show on the state that really is not that into her. And then the out-of-wedlock teen mother that is her daughter showcases her oafish moves on national television and survived elimination on Dancing with the Stars time after time, proving that no matter the myth, talent is no guarantor of success in this nation.
In a media age, some people’s sense of self-importance swells beyond control, and such was the case for a bit-sized Florida pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones, who decided that he and his whopping 50-member congregation would take on “islamofacism” by burning copies of the Islamic holy book. His threats were circulating on jihadist recruitment sites halfway around the world before the mutton-chopped minister became a fixture on national TV and his comments plastered in article after article. The Obama Administration, hoping to tamp down already inflamed hysteria on the part of would-be terrorists, sought to chill out Jones. Even Bob Gates, the secretary of defense, made a personal call to talk reason. Jones called off the stunt, but not before critics questioned why he garnered so much attention in the first place, and the hand-wringing that came among assignment editors as to whether they aided and elevated a nuisance into a potential crisis. In the months since, Jones has crawled back to his Gainesville outpost, Dove World Outreach Center, assumingly to continue preaching about “peace” and “tolerance.”
While declared dead – finally – the impact of the two years-plus downturn lingers on. It outlasted the massive stimulus plan the Obama Administration touted as the economy’s savior. It pummeled popularity polls. And it haunted those who scour Craigslist, Monster and the masses of jobs boards, searching for work. Unemployment hovered near 10 percent for most of the year, sitting at about 9.8 percent for November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the ongoing consternation for the president and Democratic leaders in Congress. Among African Americans, the issue is even direr, with national unemployment rates soaring to 16.1 percent. Despite the lagging economy, even this Grinch couldn’t steal Christmas 2010. Consumers bounded back to stores, still timid, but a bit more determined to engage in a bit of stimulus of their own.
Michael Steele started off his term as the GOP’s Great Black Hope and too often was left looking like its Great Black Dope. From the bondage-themed nightclub scandal to his seeming pro-abortion stance, scandal after scandal had rank-in-file Republicans calling for his ouster, but the reversal of the party’s fortunes during the midterm elections gave him plenty of room to laugh, all the way to the bank – or Guam.
February snow didn’t just blanket the Eastern Seaboard – it buried it. From Philly to D.C., Canadian-sized drifts submerged every car, bus, trolley, school, street, avenue, tree and anything else affixed to the ground for more than 10 minutes. Everything ground to a halt. Everything. Most bypassed any thoughts on excavation efforts of their vehicles since the stores had been sold out of bread and milk days before. Crowds started cheering oft-reviled Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter when he unleashed the plows. It was a storm for the ages, even if the good folks in Buffalo poked fun at the catastrophe of climate change. Epsom salt sales soared in the weeks that followed as digging out took on a whole new meaning.
All silly hats and outrageous placards aside, the tea party movement – too vast, dispersed and diverse to corral into a category – came as an outgrowth of the suspicious, fearful public stirred into a frenzy by Republican and Republican-leaning forces. Less than a conspiracy than a tinder box with a ready flame, people “mad as hell” decided that all blame should fall on the man in office who two years ago inherited the messes of the preceding president and his cohorts that did little to combat stagnant wages or additional government spending. And like any good party, the nuts came out in force to round out this band of misfits and misfires. Purity tests erupted and suddenly those smug GOP legislators started going all wobbly as the mob came for them, felling viable candidates like Mike Castle in Delaware with whack jobs like Christine O’Donnell. Others rode all the way into office, from Florida’s Marco Rubio to Kentucky’s Rand Paul. Overwhelmingly white, old, bitter and anti-Obama, efforts were made to filter racially tinged elements by reaching out to people of color and supporting the Congressional bids of some, with Allen West and Tim Scott among the winners’ circle.
U.S. Supreme Court, round 2
With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, conservatives clinched their teeth and fists as President Obama was afforded yet another pick for the highest court of the land. His selection was his solicitor general, Elena Kagan, the former dean of the Harvard Law School and the first nominee in more than a generation that did not come through the usual process of having served on a lower court. Republican senators stamped their feet and sought to dampen the mood, but her confirmation was near cake. Her selection made for the fourth female and eighth Jewish justice in the court’s history.
So when President Obama joined the TV gabfest that is The View, political purists were aghast. In their view, it was yet another move toward an ever-pedestrian presidency – what with appearances on Oprah, Jay Leno and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But it gave him the opportunity to connect with a largely female viewership that tends to be disconnected from politics – an audience that includes the first lady, he noted. So with legs crossed and great self-control – not once did he ogle Sherri Shepherd’s ample bosom – he chatted it up with her, Barbara Walters, Joy Behar and Whoopi Goldberg, and even did a light tango-tangle with the resident conservative-lite chick, Elisabeth Hasselbeck. ABC appreciated the ratings boost.
Finally a bright spot during the course of the year! South Africa captivated the globe by pulling off a feat usually tackled by nations with higher GDPs and FIFA confidence. The country partied almost as much as it did when Mandela walked free, and the continent swelled with justifiable pride, hosting the global event for the first time – even if none of its nations made it to the finals. Instead, Spain walked away with soccer’s most coveted prize.
When a feature film, the Social Network, and snafus around privacy and ad policies threatened the founder of Facebook and his empire’s reputation, he stepped up his public relations games. The $100 million gift to the Newark public school system deflated the self-absorbed, aloof mantle with which the whiz kid had been saddled and offered a chance for him to tell a new story. The one with which most were familiar – the maladjusted and socially awkward Harvard grad who went on to take a school project to a billion-dollar industry in under a decade – suddenly was giving way to a vision of Zuckerberg as philanthropist, offering to give a leg up to the next techno-preneur.
Catch your breath yet? Take a swig of something bubbly, sit back and relax. From the looks of things, 2011 will be equally paced, so after sleeping off the New Year’s Eve festivities, lace up the sneaks. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.