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That was 2006: The Year of the Sneer

Golly, it was a mean year, punctuated by as nasty a political campaign as you could ever imagine, MSNBC’s Alex Johnson reports in his annual Year in Review.
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If you’re about to be hanged, you can go several ways in choosing your last words.

There’s the “O [Deity of Choice] protect my soul” route.

There’s the “no, no I don’t want to die!” routine.

There’s the put-on-a-brave-face, “I have but one life to give” play to the historians.

Saddam Hussein chose the fourth way: I spit in your face.

The Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq were denied the spectacle of the bloody tyrant’s going to his death as a broken figure of defeat. Instead, when Saddam went to the gallows two days before the end of the year, he did so defiantly rejecting a hood to hide to his face and spewing invective at his conquerors and captors.

Irascible to the end, Saddam met his fate with a sneer. There was a lot of that in 2006.

Oh, Dick
End-of-the-year pop quiz:

Which of the following did not happen in 2006?

  • The vice president of the United States shot a man in the face. The family of the man who was shot apologized.
  • The vice president of the United States was named as a witness in a federal investigation, putting him on track to become the first vice president ever to testify at a criminal trial.
  • The vice president of the United States said anyone who voted for a Democratic Senate candidate would be encouraging “the al-Qaida types who want to break the will of the American people.”
  • It was revealed that the vice president of the United States insists that all television sets in hotel rooms he uses be preset to Fox News Channel.

Silly you. You know you can’t trust the liberal media. We fooled you — all of those things happened in 2006 to Dick Cheney, whose gray visage floated, like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloon, over the Year of the Sneer.

When former President Gerald Ford’s great big heart finally gave out after 93 years, his death reminded us that there once was a time of we’re-all-in-this-together bipartisan commonality in this country. But no more. Threaded throught the eulogies to the accidental president who bound the nation’s wounds after the Watergate scandal was an odd sense of nostalgia: He was a nice guy. How quaint.

Same to you, pal
Golly, it was a mean year, punctuated by as nasty a political campaign as you could ever imagine.

Take the vice president’s bilious dismissal of Connecticut Senate candidate Ned Lamont. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, the folks at the Republican National Committee financed an ad suggesting that Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr. was a black, race-mixing, Mob-connected, black serial skirt-chaser (and did we mention he was black?). And in Wisconsin, a Republican House candidate accused his Democratic opponent of favoring prostitution and child sexual abuse.

For a moment or two, it seemed as if the wind was blowing with the vice president, who by all accounts was being eased aside as the .

But when all the votes were counted, frogs fell from the sky and locusts swarmed the Capitol. The Democrats — last seen whirling around in full Curly woob-woob-woob mode after losing two years ago to one of the most unpopular presidents in modern history — won control of the House and the Senate.

(Check that. They won control of the House, and they thought they had won control of the Senate. Then a little-known Democratic senator named Tim Johnson suffered something very like a stroke. If, in the new year, Johnson decides he has to resign [or dies], the Senate will likely be locked in a flat 50-50 tie. The vice president would hold the tie-breaking vote. The vice president, of course, is Dick Cheney.)

From the jaws of defeat
So how did the Democrats do it? Basically, the Republicans blew up in a giant North-Korean-dictator-Kim-Jong-Il-hairdo-like mushroom cloud.

Even then, the Dems just squeaked through, despite the president’s pell-mell retreat as his father’s grayest advisers took control of Iraq policy. Despite the rise in the number of U.S. service members killed to 2,947 (as of Dec. 19). Despite the as Sunni militants, Shiite militants, Kurdish militants and al-Qaida militants fought bloodily for control of the country. (All of which, eventually, meant Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his smirk were bundled off into retirement and left the administration reduced to arguing that the violence didn’t, at least technically speaking, meet the dictionary definition of a civil war.)

Despite the conviction of Republican-linked über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (for fraud). And White House aide David Safavian (for obstruction). And Republican Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (for taking bribes) and Bob Ney (for receiving inappropriate gifts). And Republican former Gov. George Ryan of Illinois (for impressive all-round corruption).

Despite the forced resignation of Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who was discovered sending salacious electronic messages (“how [sic] my favorite young stud doing?”) to male congressional pages even as he led the House panel investigating sexual exploitation of minors.

Despite the indictment and retirement of House Republican leader Tom DeLay, a Hammer who became the Texas legal system’s Nail.

Despite the indictment and resignation of the vice president’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “What Kind of a Name Is Scooter for a Grown Man” Libby, on suspicion lying to cover up the defamation of an administration critic. (That’s the case in which the vice president will make history by taking the stand.)

Despite widespread condemnation of the administration’s secret programs to eavesdrop on American citizens’ telephone calls and delve into their financial records and electronic mail without court warrants.

Despite the vice president’s unfortunate choice of hunting targets: an elderly lawyer. This really happened: A few days later, the lawyer’s family apologized to the vice president for causing all that trouble.

Still, at year’s end, Republicans could celebrate that a Democratic congressman, William Jefferson, was under under investigation for allegedly trying to sell his influence to Nigerian scamsters.

Then they saw the Democrats self-immolate over the selection and then defeat of millionaire candidate Ned Lamont against pro-Iraq war Senator Joe Lieberman.

And that in her first act as the first House Speaker-elect, Rep. Nancy Pelosi got herself into a right-royal catfight by backing the ethics-challenged John Murtha to be majority leader over the more popular choice of her colleagues, Steny Hoyer, with whom Pelosi has feuded for years.

Somewhere, Dick Cheney was smiling again.

That’s a wrap (Act One)
The entertainment world lost a number of notable figures in 2006:

  • Syd Barrett, creative force behind the psychedelic beginnings of Pink Floyd.
  • Peter Boyle, versatile actor equally at home playing Frankenstein’s monster and Ray Romano’s dad.
  • Ruth Brown, founding mother of modern rhythm-and-blues.
  • Red Buttons. Never had a dinner.
  • Sarah Caldwell, pioneering American classical conductor who was the first woman to direct the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Betty Comden, Broadway partner of Adolph Green who wrote the lyrics to such classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “On the Town.”
  • Ahmet Ertegun, suave Turkish-born founder of Atlantic Records who brought R&B to the masses.
  • Glenn Ford, good-guy leading man of “Blackboard Jungle,” “Pocketful of Miracles” and dozens of other films.
  • Steve Irwin. Crikey!
  • Don Knotts, beloved comic actor on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Three’s Company” who always played a human bowl of Jello.
  • Arif Mardin, towering behind-the-scenes figure in pop music responsible in whole or in part for Aretha Franklin, the Bee Gees, Chaka Khan and, most recently, Norah Jones.

So’s your mother
Nastiness knows no politics, of course. It was just that kind of year.

Hugo Chavez, the quaintly leftist-in-a-’60s-kind-of-way president of Venezuela, provided comic relief at the United Nations when he took the podium to call Bush the devil. Not in a metaphorical way, either; he meant in a Lucifer-with-horns-and-a-pitchfork way. “In this very spot it smells like sulfur still,” he said.

In Mexico, the presidential election lingered unresolved for two months as insults flew before the conservative candidate, Felipe Calderón (Secret Service code name: “Gov. Bush”), was declared the winner over the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Secret Service code name: “Al Gore”), by the Supreme Court (Secret Service code name: “the Supreme Court”).

Across the Muslim world, violent demonstrators greeted the publication by a Danish magazine of cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. Eventually, six people are known to have been killed in protests that spread to Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Thailand, New Zealand and Afghanistan.

At least 10 people connected with the trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were assassinated — including Saddam’s attorney — before he was convicted and sentenced to die.

Thirteen miners died after they were trapped underground in West Virginia in January. Cruelly, their families were first, mistakenly, told that they had been miraculously found alive.

More than 6,200 people were killed and almost a half-million lost their homes in May when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit the island of Java in Indonesia.

More than a quarter-million people were evacuated throughout the mid-Atlantic region in June after heavy rains caused widespread floods.

A gunman killed five girls before killing himself at an Amish school in Pennsylvania in October.

In September, 12 people were killed in wind storms and tornadoes in six Southeastern states. In December, at least 14 people were killed and more than a million and a half others were left without power after a historic wind storm in the Pacific Northwest.

As many as 700 people were killed in landslides in November when a typhoon struck Albay Province in the Philippines.

That’s a wrap (Act Two)
More dearly departed of stage, screen and record:

  • Robert McFerrin Sr., powerful operatic bass who was the first African-American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • Fayard Nicholas, extraordinary dancer who, with his brother, Howard, brought tap to its apotheosis on Broadway.
  • Buck Owens, country singer best remembered for “Hee-Haw” but most appropriately remembered for creating the lush, string-heavy Bakersfield sound.
  • Billy Preston, funk and rock pianist extraordinaire often acclaimed as the fifth Beatle.
  • Lou Rawls, the smoothest voice on the planet.
  • Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, German soprano considered by some to be the greatest of the 20th century.
  • Aaron Spelling, bubble-gum TV compére. There is no truth to the rumor that his pallbearers were six babes in bikinis.
  • Dennis Weaver, familiar, easy-going actor who played the Western archetype even as a modern-day New York detective in “McCloud.”
  • Shelley Winters, actress whose late-career slump as a figure of parody couldn’t overshadow her Oscar-winning chops.
  • Jane Wyatt. If you’re over 40: Father didn’t always know best. If you’re under 40: Oh, Spock, behave, my son.

On the other hand ...
Thank goodness there was some comic relief. Otherwise, 2006 would have been unbearable:

Inconveniently — seeing as how NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft on a nine-year journey to study it in January — Pluto got demoted from a planet to a little person planet (or dwarf planet, for the politically incorrect scientist). Similarly, Donald Duck was busted back to egg status.

As Atkins devotees danced in orgasmic delight, a federal study found that a low-fat diet doesn’t, in fact, save you from heart disease, cancer or stroke.

The vice president shot an elderly lawyer in the face, and the lawyer’s family apologized for causing all that trouble. [Editor’s note: You’ve already mentioned this.] [Author’s note: Yes, but it’s so much fun to type.]

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig appointed excruciatingly dignified former Sen. George Mitchell to investigate whether baseball players might actually, you know, use steroids.

The Bush administration’s Great Leak Hunt ended quietly and deliciously ironically when it was learned that the culprit who revealed CIA employee Valerie Plame’s classified status to a columnist was the Bush administration’s own deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage.

Not satisfied with disseminating its message of the day through an intermediary to Fox News Channel, the White House hired an actual Fox News Channeler, Tony Snow, as its official spokesman.

The session is adjourned
Political figures who will never again appear on “Meet the Press”:

  • Lloyd Bentsen, U.S. senator, vice presidential nominee and treasury secretary. Ask Dan Quayle (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) who he was.
  • Jeane Kirkpatrick, Democrat-turned-Republican godmother of the neoconservative movement who was the intellectual linchpin of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy as ambassador to the United Nations.
  • Ann Richards, Texas governor who nearly torpedoed President George H.W. Bush’s campaign with one devastating quip: “Poor George. He can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
  • Caspar Weinberger, Nixon-era secretary of health, education and welfare who crafted a prominent second act as Cap the Knife, President Ronald Reagan’s budget-slashing defense secretary.

More comic relief
A day before President Bush was supposed to meet with Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, a secret memo from the president’s national security adviser inconveniently lampooned the same Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki as ignorant and incompetent.

In a predictably misguided attempt to tell a joke, human pine tree John Kerry inadvertently said all U.S. service members in Iraq were dummies.

In a joint news conference, Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair teamed up to reveal that — guess what? — they made a few mistakes in Iraq. Thank you, folks; you’ve been a great audience. Don’t forget to tip your waitress!

Kenneth Lay outsmarted the law by skipping bail on his prison sentence for defrauding Enron Corp. stockholders and employees through the convenient expedience of expiring.

In June — with hundreds of Americans dying in Iraq, the administration’s secret surveillance program causing great alarm and a White House aide (David Safavian) being sentenced to prison — the Senate detoured to debate the burning issue of flag-burning, which hasn’t happened in, like, 10 years or something.

National Public Radio reported that one reason we haven’t caught Osama bin Laden is that the CIA oh-so-quietly shut down the office responsible for tracking him down. Then, in November, Congress quietly embedded a provision in the military authorization bill to shut down the Pentagon office responsible for investigating fraud and waste in Iraq.

And the final score is ...
Sports figures who went off to the great end zone in the sky:

  • Red Auerbach. Greatest basketball coach of all time? Try this on for size: Discoverer of Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Larry Bird and winner of nine NBA championships — eight of them in a row — as coach plus seven more as general manager or president of the Boston Celtics.
  • Curt Gowdy, Hall of Fame college basketball superstar and the voice of the World Series and the Super Bowl.
  • Byron Nelson, the dominant figure in professional golf during the middle of the 20th century. Winner of 18 tournaments in one year, 11 of them in a row.
  • Floyd Patterson, Olympic gold medalist and youngest heavyweight champion (at the time, in 1956) who was admired as much for his courtesy and character as he was his boxing skill.
  • Willie Pep, featherweight king throughout the 1940s who won 230 professional fights. So elusive and quick that he once deliberately fought a round without throwing a punch — and he won the round.
  • Kirby Puckett, roly-poly leader of the Minnesota Twins of the 1980s and ’90s who had to retire at age 35 in 1996 because he was going blind.
  • Earl Woods, father of Tiger.

Even more comic relief
Dell recalled 4.1 million laptop computer batteries because they had the unfortunate side effect of bursting into flames. Dude, you’re getting a third-degree burn.

Swinging ’80s icon Daniel Ortega, bête noir of the Reagan administration, was returned to power in Nicaragua, raising the important question: Daniel Ortega is still alive?

The United Nations elected a new secretary-general, leading to way too many lame “I’ve seen a Ban Moon rising” jokes.

The Transportation Security Administration, acting after British authorities foiled a plot to blow up airplanes, declared Crest, Dippity-do and those little bottles of waterless hand-washing stuff the biggest threats to safety since at least the Great Plague of 1347.

BP closed the country’s biggest oil field, in Alaska, when rust was discovered in a pipeline. We’ll repeat that: Rust was found in a pipe full of, essentially, 3-in-One.

Don’t let the door hit you on the way out
Some not-so-dearly departed:

  • Shamil Basayev, ringleader of the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002 and a school in Beslan in 2004.
  • Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia charged with mass murder and war crimes.
  • Augusto Pinochet, former military dictator accused of complicity in the deaths of as many as 30,000 Chileans, relieving him of the burden of proving he was too senile to stand trial.
  • Alfredo Stroessner, former military dictator of Paraguay. It was not a good year to be a former military dictator.
  • Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and the most-wanted terrorist in the country.

The final chapter
And even more obits:

  • Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who carried on his work with creation of the King Center for Non-Violent Social Change.
  • Peter Benchley, author of “Jaws” and untold millions of attacks of the midsummer willies.
  • Ed Bradley, empathetic war correspondent who as co-anchor of “60 Minutes” somehow managed to personify gravitas even with a twinkly diamond earring.
  • Oleg Cassini, designer whose elegant dresses graced Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly.
  • Betty Friedan, calculatedly polemicist author who spearheaded the feminist movement and co-founded both NOW and the organization now known as NARAL Pro Choice.
  • Milton Friedman, Nobel-winning economist whose free-market theories gave birth to the Chicago School of economic thought.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith, author and economic theorist who was the liberal answer to Milton Friedman and became U.S. ambassador to India.
  • Alexander Litvinenko, ex-KGB ally-turned-Kremlin critic whose slow, agonizing death from poisoning by radioactive polonium remained unsolved at year’s end.
  • Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel-winning novelist who introduced much of the world to modern Egypt.
  • Gordon Parks, Renaissance-man artist who was a pioneer in fashion photography, documentary photography and, with his movie “Shaft,” cinema.
  • Mickey Spillane. Biff! Pow!
  • William Styron, Pulitzer-winning author of “Sophie’s Choice” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner” who never shied from exploring painful moral dilemmas.

ITube, YouTube, we’re all down the Tube
The glittery folks who hunger to be famous discovered in 2006 that, well, it’s hard out here for a celebrity. Take Mel Gibson. Please.

Gibson, the action star and Oscar-winning director whose surprise 2005 hit “The Passion of the Christ” raised questions about his take on Jews, emphatically answered those questions in July when he was stopped for DUI and promptly launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. Among his choice observations: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

Not to be outdone, Michael “#$%KKK&*^” Richards, Kramer on “Seinfeld,” rose to the challenge, matching Gibson slur for slur in November when he lit into four African-American audience members during a stand-up comedy appearance.

Then there was the Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a prominent conservative opponent of homosexuality. Pastor Ted, it turned out, was the client of a gay male escort.

They weren’t the only famous names to give the tabloids all they could handle:

Britney Spears got pregnant, got divorced and got exposed.

After going nuts on “Oprah” last year, Tom Cruise went to Italy to get hitched to Katie Holmes.

Pamela Anderson married Kid Rock before deciding she had room for only two boobs in her life.

JT Leroy, the author of searing autobiographical novels detailing his life of drugs and crime, turned out, in fact, to be a middle-aged New York woman who made it all up.

James Frey was given a good butt-whuppin’ by Oprah after it turned out he’d made up key parts of a “memoir” that she’d chosen as her monthly book club selection.

Judith Regan was fired because, as the person who commissioned O.J. Simpson’s “imaginary” tell-all autobiography, managed to embarrass her boss, Rupert Murdoch, which is really, really hard to do.

And lest we forget:

The vice president of the United States shot an elderly lawyer in the face.