Too many year-end pieces seek to characterize the preceding twelve months as a roller-coaster ride. For my money, 2009 turned out to be more akin to one of those swamp boat rides which purport to expose you to the beauty of nature while hoping you don’t notice how rapidly the alligators have overrun the terrain. Still, the final hours are ticking away and it’s worth taking a brief look back at the top ten highlights (or lowlights) that comprise the most significant political stories of the year.
10. Play It Again, Sam
No matter what your feelings may be about the current White House resident, it would be disingenuous in the extreme to deny that the inauguration of the nation’s first black president was historic. But with nearly a year of perspective to draw upon, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the ceremony was the uncomfortably comic moment when the administration of the oath of office was flubbed. It seemed little more than a humorous trivia entry at the time, but the need for a do-over on the very first official act of the new administration should have set off alarms for the superstitious among us. The number of fits and starts encountered by the president’s ambitious agenda has doubtless left Barack Obama wishing for a mulligan more often than his “no girls allowed” trips out to the links.
9. All They Were Saying Was Give Peace a Chance
The decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award their vaunted peace prize to Barack Obama quickly became a subject of regret around the world. (A disappointment perhaps felt by nobody as keenly as the committee members themselves following the president’s speech.) This is one story where some sympathy should be shown for President Obama. He had no control over the choice and, contrary to the opinions of many of his critics, refusing the award wasn’t really an option. But the moment quickly morphed into the gift that keeps on giving, prompting late-night comics (normally a very Obama-friendly audience) to begin speculating on what other honors he might receive, ranging from the Cy Young Award to an Eagle Scout badge. It may not have ended any wars, but the choice certainly provided us with weeks of humor in an otherwise dreary season.
8. Hiking Isn’t Always Good Exercise
Another classic moment from 2009 was brought to us by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who began to turn up on the sides of milk cartons around his state last June. The idea of a prominent political figure having a South American lover might not, by itself, make our list. But his choice of excuses cements his place firmly in history. Sadly, the real victims of this tale are the true aficionados of camping and touring nature trails. Men up and down the Eastern seaboard who truly enjoy these activities must henceforth find a new explanation to give their wives regarding their weekend activities, since the phrase “hiking the Appalachian Trail” has forever taken on a rather tawdry connotation.
7. Cold Cash and Hard Time
Perhaps the most heartwarming story of the past year came to us from well south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was the touching tale of a former congressman who asked for nothing more than a chance to serve his country, provide for his family, and store massive amounts of bribe money in tinfoil-wrapped packages in his freezer. But when William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson was sentenced to more than a dozen years in prison, the nation was taught a valuable lesson. There are, apparently, some levels of outrageous behavior which even members of Congress are not allowed to reach. (This one may be premature, though, since he’s still not seen a single day behind bars. Keep your fingers crossed.)
6. New York, New York. So Nice They’ll Try You Twice
A big newsmaker which will doubtless continue to deliver for some time to come was the administration’s decision to put Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and a few of his cronies on trial in New York City for their various transgressions. The Obama administration deftly signaled that they were no longer in favor of military tribunals, except when they were. While the media continues a feeding frenzy on the subject and debate rages across the land, the one group of people who seem least offended are New Yorkers themselves. Of course, given their propensity to solve many of today’s deeply nuanced conflicts at the end of a Louisville Slugger, this may not be such a surprise.
5. It Hurts Her So To Say Goodbye
When Sarah Palin decided to resign as Alaska’s governor in July, the conventional wisdom indicated that her career in national politics should have been effectively kaput. This did nothing, however, to dampen a 24/7 media frenzy surrounding her every move, word, and Twitter Tweet which continues to this day. Speculation abounds concerning her future viability as a candidate, whether she will replace Oprah on television, or be named the next pope. There’s no telling what comes next for the Wasilla Wildcat, but her place as a top newsmaker in 2009 is assured.
4. The Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah
While it didn’t garner nearly as much media coverage as deserved, one of the biggest stories of the year had to be the protests in Iran this summer surrounding their disputed presidential election. It started a quiet but growing movement which continued to play out straight through the end of the year. Some observers still wonder about how much power that official holds in a country where the religious leaders keep all the power cards in their hands, but there is little doubt that we witnessed a change which may wind up reshaping that part of the world for the rest of our lives.
3. Welcome to the Party, Pal
There was a time when the winners of elections made all the news, but 2009 certainly challenged that concept. In an off year when politics often takes a bit of a nap, the sleepy, rural hills of New York’s 23rd congressional district captured the attention of reporters and political addicts around the nation. Despite starting from a position of nearly zero funding and even less name recognition, Doug Hoffman upset the national GOP apple cart. Running on the NY Conservative Party ticket, he energized a national revolt against the Republican candidate, drove her from the field of battle, and came within a few percentage points of winning the election. The media subtext for this story quickly became the Great Republican Schism of 2009, as rank-and-file conservatives took to the streets against a national party leadership which they felt had lost touch with the base.
2. But They Didn’t Invite Alice or the March Hare
The other half of the Great Republican Schism story played out with the advent of the tea party movement and their participation in town hall meetings and rallies around the nation this summer. Marches and angry shouting drew reporters in their masses, eventually resulting in polls finding that the tea party was more popular than both the Democrats and the Republicans. It would have been shocking enough for them to lose to the Libertarians or Greens, for example, but to be trumped by a concept which isn’t even registered as an actual, national political party made the growing strength of the movement one of the top stories of the year.
First Prize: As Long as You’ve Got Your Health …
The top story of 2009 had to be the ongoing debate and legislative battles surrounding health care reform. It dragged out over a long hot summer and a cloudy autumn — and now looks as if it will rage well into next year. Perhaps the strangest subtext of this story, however, is the way that it morphed into the parallel to the last two items. Health care reform became the Great Democratic Schism of 2009, as Blue Dogs pulled from one direction, siding with most of the Republicans on key issues, and the hardcore liberal contingent ripped the Democrats asunder from the other side, insisting on a public option, single payer, and all manner of other wish list items which never made the final cut.
Whether either party actually fractures over these items, however, will have to wait for our list at the end of 2010. By then, of course, we’ll be arguing about why the Democrats lost so many seats in the last election, so all of this may have been for naught. But until then, Happy New Year and stay tuned for an even wilder ride in the next twelve months.