“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” President Bush said on Sept. 1, three days after Hurricane Katrina punctured the system of dams protecting New Orleans and created the greatest natural disaster in American history.
Unfortunately for the president, that wasn’t true, as news reports about studies that did just that would make clear. But it sounded good at the time.
“I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, ‘New Orleans Dodged the Bullet,’” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said three days later, explaining why his department was slow to respond to the devastation. “Because, if you recall, the storm moved to the east and then continued on and appeared to pass with considerable damage but nothing worse.”
Of course, it didn’t. And even if it had, that would only have meant that the bullet took out Mississippi and Alabama, rather than Louisiana. But it sounded good at the time.
That was 2005. It was the year of the excuse.
‘Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job’
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. It killed 1,300 people, ravaged five states along the Gulf Coast and all but destroyed New Orleans. It also caused a political and bureaucratic storm of unprecedented proportions.
At the center of it was Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who became a laughingstock after he betrayed his agency’s lack of planning before Katrina and its lack of awareness afterward. Brown told CNN that he didn’t even learn that hundreds of New Orleanians were trapped in the fetid Convention Center until two days after the television networks had been broadcasting the scene to the world.
Instead, e-mail records showed, Brown and his staff were hard at work making sure he had enough time for a leisurely dinner in Baton Rouge and looked snappy on TV. “I got (my shirt) at Nordsstroms (sic),” Brown wrote. “Are you proud of me? Can I quit now? Can I go home?”
Katrina gave plenty of folks opportunities galore to step into big, steaming piles of rhetoric:
“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” the president said at a post-disaster photo-op, hard on the heels of pictures of the chief executive reviewing hurricane-ravaged areas from the comfort of Air Force One while returning from vacation.
The president’s mother placed foot firmly in mouth when she said this of the thousands of Louisianans who took refuge in Houston’s Astrodome: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
And Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., was overheard telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
It sounded good at the time
Fifteen years after she collapsed in a coma and seven years after various members of her family began fighting in court over what to do with her, Terri Schiavo died in a hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., in March. The battle over which relatives should have the final say in whether to remove her feeding tube turned into a proxy for the abortion wars as figures from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to the Rev. Jesse Jackson weighed in on the meaning of life.
Quotation: “This is not somebody in a persistent vegetative state,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, diagnosed in Washington after watching Schiavo on videotape. Turns out she was, as her autopsy revealed.
So long, farewell and amen
2005 was also a year of wrenching transition in society as figures who defined their eras passed from the scene.
Millions of Catholics flocked to churches around the world to say goodbye to Pope John Paul II, the third-longest-reigning pontiff in history. During 26 years in the Vatican, John Paul was instrumental in the end of the Cold War and reunified the church after a decade of upheaval brought about by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. A transformative political figure, the deeply conservative John Paul was embraced by liberal Catholics as warmly as he was by conservatives, helping ease the way for his successor, Benedict XVI, his conservative theological enforcer.
The mother of the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, died in October, a half-century after she refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Somewhere up there, a seat’s been reserved for her up front.
Thirteen years after he proved that celebrity isn’t an incurable disease by walking away from “The Tonight Show,” almost never to be seen again, Johnny Carson died at 79. Today, Jay Leno occupies his chair, but not his throne as the king of late-night television.
Peter Jennings died at 67, honored as an exponent of serious news on television and a passionate crusader for international reporting. Even though he never graduated from high school and flopped miserably as a co-anchor of ABC’s nightly news show in the 1960s, he worked his way back and, by the time he left the air in April, was the last of the old-style voice-of-God network anchors left standing.
Other important figures who died this year:
- Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who brought consistent conservative leadership, organization and snazzy Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style chevrons to the Supreme Court.
- Richard Pryor. American standup comedy is divided into two periods: Before Pryor and After Pryor.
- Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to mount a serious major-party presidential campaign.
- Arthur Miller, who brought stream-of-consciousness naturalism to the American stage with “Death of a Salesman” and gave countless high school actors their starts with “The Crucible” — and who married Marilyn Monroe, to boot.
- Hunter S. Thompson, who is credited with committing some of the greatest and weirdest journalism of the 20th century and blamed for inspiring some of the worst by lesser-talented imitators. He blew his head off with his own gun, which is surely the only way it could have happened.
- George Kennan, whose creation of the U.S. policy of containment allowed the United States to beat the Soviet Union to the finish line.
- Jack Kilby, whose invention of the integrated circuit gave us computers, modern television and those annoying jerks who natter on into their cell phones in the HOV lane.
It sounded good at the time
The CIA leak investigation ground on, bringing the indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, and the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller.
At year’s end, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald impaneled a new grand jury to continue his investigation, leaving the fate of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove unresolved.
Quotation: “I’m not going to discuss an ongoing legal proceeding,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said over and over, backtracking from his firm statement two years ago that Libby and Rove “assured me they were not involved in this.”
Celebrities in the wild
America’s Cabbage Patch Kid — brilliant entertainer and all-round really creepy guy Michael Jackson — was found not guilty of molesting a 13-year-old cancer survivor. “I will be acquitted and vindicated,” he’d predicted before his trial. Hey, .500’s not a bad batting average.
Robert Blake got off, too. Or, at least, so said the criminal jury. A civil jury subsequently found him liable for $30 million in damages in the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.
Martha Stewart was sprung from the pokey, cooled her heels under house arrest and was back and badder than ever. After all, she never had a prime-time network series of her own before she began committing felonies.
Actually, it only seemed like Variety was the new bible of the Mafia — not all the celebrity news was criminal:
- Tom Cruise. Earth to Tom ... Earth to Tom ...
- Earth to Katie ... Earth to Katie ...
- Britney Spears released exactly zero albums, and she still managed to top Yahoo’s list of the most popular search requests of the year. Late in the year, she sued Us magazine for libel for reporting — falsely, she said — that she and her husband, Kevin Federline, had made an explicit sex tape. Just between you and us, hadn’t you always assumed Britney Spears had an explicit sex tape floating around somewhere? For that matter, what else could you call the video for “Oops, I Did It Again”?
- 50 Cent and The Game donated $253,500 to the Boys Choir of Harlem, which was threatened with eviction from the public school where it rehearses, as part of their Yo, We Don’t Really Want to Kill Each Other tour. Critics hailed “The Documentary” by The Game as the best rap album of the year, but Fitty ended up selling more records than anyone else.
- The Rolling Stones toured again. Are we sure that South Korean scientist hasn’t actually cloned new life?
- Bennifer gave way to Brangelina.
- Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. Apparently, even sordid celebrity marriages have minor-league farm teams.
- Stella gave her groove right back as Terry McMillan dumped her husband — the inspiration for her best-selling novel — after discovering he was gay.
- Kate Moss. So that’s why she’s so skinny.
- Sean Combs admitted the obvious, confessing that all his name changes over the years — Puff Daddy, Puffy, P. Diddy and the sleek, aerodynamic Diddy — were just jokes. “You can call me anything you want, to be honest,” he said. Thanks for clearing that up.
- Charles and Camilla. Ma’am, we knew Princess Diana. Princess Diana was a friend of ours. Ma’am, you’re no Princess Diana.
Against all that, the wedding in December of Elton John and David Furnish was positively old-fashioned.
It sounded good at the time
There was good news for the administration by year’s end as Iraqis carried out a largely peaceful and broadly inclusive election on the way to establishing a new constitution.
But it was a long and deadly road to get there. The U.S. military death toll topped 2,000 — a symbolic milestone that the White House dismissed as substantively meaningless — and Bush himself put the total number of Iraqis killed at 30,000.
Quotation: “It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,” Bush said in December, after his administration largely denied exactly that for almost three years.
Diagnosis: circulation problems
Jiggling their legs nervously, media barons watched newspaper readership figures and TV news ratings continue to fall in 2005. They wondered what was wrong.
Well, let’s see:
- More than 2,000 newspaper journalists lost their jobs in 2005, the trade publication Editor & Publisher counted, as publishers slashed their staffs in a panic over profit margins that shockingly fell to only twice the U.S. corporate average. Twenty-five percent profits just don’t go as far as they used to.
- WIBA AM and FM of Madison, Wis., sold the naming rights to their newsroom to Amcore Bank.
- Four syndicated newspaper columnists were outed as being paid shills for corporate or political interests: Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus took money to promote Bush administration policies under the guise of independent commentary, and Doug Bandow was found to be on the payroll of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
- ABC shed no tears when Ted Koppel stepped down as anchor of “Nightline.” It replaced him with a three-headed anchor team boasting a British tabloid-TV presenter.
- Without explanation, The Denver Daily News printed the following correction in July: “The Denver Daily News would like to offer a sincere apology for a typo in Wednesday’s Town Talk regarding New Jersey’s proposal to ban smoking in automobiles. It was not the author’s intention to call New Jersey ‘Jew Jersey.’”
- Kenneth Tomlinson was forced out as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting after an internal investigation concluded that he may have broken the law by trying to force conservative-leaning programs onto the PBS schedule in violation of the CPB board’s federally mandated neutrality.
- NBC cut to tape of last year’s parade rather than report that a float had knocked over a street lamp during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, injuring two people. Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker — who are employees of NBC News — instead read from scripts describing what viewers were seeing in year-old footage.
And finally, on March 9, Dan Rather saddled up his pony and rode the prairies one last time as anchor of “The CBS Evening News.” Rather herded his cornball similes off into the sunset a year earlier than he’d wanted after he stepped up to the plate like a grizzled veteran cleanup hitter and took one in the ribs for his “60 Minutes II” team, which reported during the 2004 presidential campaign that Bush had pulled strings to get out of his National Guard service.
The documents the story rested on turned out most likely to have been faked. CBS blamed Rather’s producer for the sloppy work, but it was Rather’s name on the report, and he said he should have been more vigilant. So, like a salty old peglegged captain with a one-eyed parrot on his shoulder, Dan went down with the ship.
Sure, it was a badly sourced, rushed story that should never have seen the air. But it sounded good at the time.