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Lessons in perspective:2004 in review

It wasn’t the year we wanted. But it was the year we were stuck with.
Survivors of tsunami struggle to get hold of rice bags in Cuddalore
Indian survivors of the south Asian earthquake and tsunami were reduced to struggling over rice, stark testament to the way forces outside our control determine our fate.Arko Datta / Reuters

10,000. 22,000. 45,000. 115,000.

By the time the toll from the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that devastated coastal areas in southern Asia is finally counted, far more than 100,000 people are expected to be confirmed dead.

Until the day after Christmas, 2004 had seemed a turbulent year. There was a war. There was a presidential election. Pretty deep stuff.

Or so we thought. It took a catastrophe on the scale of the late-December tsunami to put things in perspective. With one uncontrolled spasm of fury, Mother Nature delivered a swift and shocking reminder that whatever else happened in 2004 was really, in the final analysis, trivial.

Auuugghh! Another year bites the dust
Nothing more so than the presidential campaign. Remember the presidential campaign? It was basically a scream.

In fact, screams — and hollers, shrieks, howls and hoots — punctuated the campaign from all corners:

  • Conservatives, spurred by a half-second’s sight of
  • Conservatives howled over John Kerry’s war record. Liberals howled over George W. Bush’s war record.
  • Conservatives shouted that liberals weren’t behind the war in Iraq. Liberals shouted, because they weren’t behind the war in Iraq.
**  FILE ** This undated file photo shows the version of Edvard Munch's \"The Scream,\" which was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, Aug. 22, 2004, was provided by the museum on Aug. 23, 2004. The painting, spirited away by bandits who stormed a Norwegian museum, joins more than 150,000 works of art that specialists say may never be found. (AP Photo/ Scanpix, Munch Museum, Sidsel de Jong, File)  ** NORWAY OUT NO SALES**
** FILE ** This undated file photo shows the version of Edvard Munch's \"The Scream,\" which was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, Aug. 22, 2004, was provided by the museum on Aug. 23, 2004. The painting, spirited away by bandits who stormed a Norwegian museum, joins more than 150,000 works of art that specialists say may never be found. (AP Photo/ Scanpix, Munch Museum, Sidsel de Jong, File) ** NORWAY OUT NO SALES**Sidsel De Jong - Munch Museum / MUNCH MUSEUM / SCANPIX

The screaming got so loud that thieves went straight to the source. In August, two gunmen walked into a museum in Oslo, Norway, and walked out with “The Scream” itself — the Edvard Munch masterpiece whose horrified visage captured 2004 in a glance.

Kerry on ...
Democrats could sympathize. Many of them wanted Howard Dean — a fresh face with a clear message — to be the party’s presidential standard-bearer. But instead, they got Kerry, a Washington old-timer who could never shake the Republicans’ determination to tar him as an effete flip-flopper who couldn’t settle on a strategy. It worked: President Bush won a relatively comfortable re-election.

Kerry’s focus on his highly decorated military career in Vietnam opened the door for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of longtime antagonists who managed to get much more traction out of challenging his record than they should have. “This is the best $40,000 investment made by any political group,” Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, said at a Harvard seminar this month.

Cahill was around for that debacle only because Kerry fired his first campaign manager, Jim Jordan, when he was struggling in the run-up to the Democratic primaries. She turned the ship around — only to have Kerry ease her aside late in the campaign when he turned strategy over to former Clinton aides Paul Begala and James Carville.

Also: “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Oops, they did it again ...
The context of Kerry’s changing position on a proposal to approve $87 billion in emergency funds for U.S. troops and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan may have been glossed over. But it gave the Bush campaign a highly effective advertisement. Kerry himself said he wished he hadn’t said it — the clearest illustration that 2004 was the year politicians, government officials, entertainment figures and sports stars desperately wanted a do-over.

Not that Kerry was the only politician to mess things up in 2004. Many political figures found that they were called upon this year to say, “Oops”:

  • Although he didn’t give up the ghost until February, Dean’s insurgent campaign ended in January with his own version of The Scream. Never mind that the whole episode was unfair to Dean, whose roar sounded much more raw than it really was because the sound-canceling microphone he was using filtered out the noise of the frenzied Iowa crowd.
  • Jack Ryan, the Republican nominee for the open Senate seat in Illinois, quit after his wife, Jeri Ryan, said in divorce papers that he had forced her to go to explicit adult sex clubs. He may have confused her with the character she played on “Star Trek: Voyager,” an intergalactic Sports Illustrated swimsuit model of the future. The documents were silent on the possible bejewelment of her breast.
  • Ryan’s replacement, former Assistant Secretary of State Alan Keyes, agreed when an interviewer asked whether Mary Cheney, the vice president’s daughter, was a “selfish hedonist” because she was a lesbian. “Of course she is,” Keyes said, managing to insult both liberals who supported equal rights for gays and lesbians and conservatives who admired Dick Cheney, perhaps the most powerful Republican in the land.
  • New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Jim McGreevey, announced his resignation, disclosing that he had stepped out on his wife. With another man. Whose breast, presumably, was not bejeweled.
  • Joe “Three-Way Tie for Third” Lieberman. Dick “The Brow” Gephardt. Bob “Bob” Graham. Why?

The war grinds on
The biggest political mystery of 2004, however, was why Kerry was never able to damage Bush over the continuing instability in Iraq. By September, more than 1,000 U.S. fighters had died since the invasion last year; by the end of the year, the number was above 1,300.

Anti-U.S. forces controlled large parts of Iraq well into 2004, most notably in Fallujah, near Baghdad, and in Mosul in the north. The resistance in Fallujah was supposed to have been quelled when the Americans launched an invasion in November, but that turned out to be wishful thinking. Just this week, the insurgents managed to kill 29 people when they blew up a house during a raid by U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police.

The administration’s plans for elections in Iraq next month remained officially on schedule. But Sunni Muslim clerics called for a boycott to protest the U.S. offensive in Fallujah, while the largest Sunni political party withdrew because of the deteriorating security situation, casting serious doubt on whether the vote would be perceived as a legitimate expression of the will of the Iraqi people.

Simultaneously, the conduct of Americans in Iraq was doing little to help. Photographs showing U.S. guards at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad mistreating naked Iraqi detainees not only added fuel to the anti-U.S. campaign across the Muslim world, but they also set back the image of West Virginia by three decades, thanks to especially disturbing photos featuring a private named Lynndie England. While awaiting a court-martial next month, England — who posed for the notorious shot of an Iraqi detainee tethered on a leash — gave birth to the son of one of her co-defendants.

Oops, they did it again ...
The war did not deny Bush a second term. Still, that didn’t mean it wasn’t a year for many in the administration to say, “Sorry about that”:

In January, the soon-to-be-former chief U.S. weapons inspector said he couldn’t find any illicit weapons in Iraq. Bush made those weapons the pretext for invading Iraq almost a year earlier.


In February, the Army canceled its Comanche helicopter program. Over 21 years of development, the Comanche cost taxpayers $6.9 billion but never flew a mission in combat.


In March, Bush’s former counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, said al-Qaida hadn’t even been on the radar in the months before the 2001 terrorist attacks.


In June, George Tenet resigned as director of the CIA. In July, we learned why when a Senate report concluded that the CIA gave unfounded assessments of the threat posed by Iraq.


Meanwhile, the bills were piling up. In October, the Congressional Budget Office projected a record federal deficit of $415 billion for 2004.


Now it’s December, and the end is in sight. Christmas spirits, New Year’s festivities — surely, nothing else could go wrong.

Enter Bernie Kerik, preceded by his mustache.

The president thought Kerik, the Liddy-like, chest-first former commissioner of the New York Police Department, would make a terrific successor to Tom Ridge as secretary of homeland security. He would have, too — in the Clinton administration.

Kerik stepped aside, disclosing that he had employed an undocumented immigrant as a nanny and that he apparently forgot to pay taxes and Social Security. Oops.

Then the New York press reported that Kerik had hidden his first marriage (of three). And that he carried on multiple long-term affairs — simultaneously — allegedly conducting one in an apartment set aside for workers cleaning up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And that he allegedly failed to pay maintenance fees on a condominium he owned.

Oops, oops and oops.

Exit Bernie Kerik, preceded by his past.

Book ’em ...
At least nobody of note in the administration went to jail. (But check this space next year.) Never mind; 2004 gave us the spectacle of celebrity after celebrity being marched into court:

  • More than a year after he was arrested on charges of felony sexual assault and false imprisonment, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant avoided trial when the young woman who accused him of raping her said she couldn’t “go forward.” Still to come next year is her civil lawsuit.
  • Michael Jackson was charged with child molestation. Meanwhile, his former wife sought custody of their children. As for the possible bejewelment of his breast, well, it is Michael Jackson.
  • Martha Stewart went from her house to the big house for lying to investigators (about a stock sale, not about the bejewelment, or lack of it, of her breast). That’s not a Good Thing, it seems.
  • Singer/actress/professional multi-car pileup Courtney Love pleaded not guilty after she was charged with attacking a woman she caught in bed with her ex-boyfriend.
  • Five members of the Indiana Pacers, most notably human temper tantrum Ron Artest, were charged for their roles in a brawl at the end of a game in November in Detroit.  Artest was suspended without pay for the entire NBA season.
  • Former child stars Tracey Gold, Edward Furlong and Macaulay Culkin were all arrested during the same week in September on unrelated drug charges.

And in those rare moments when a celebrity wasn’t up on charges, cable news channels created one of their own, turning a nondescript California fertilizer salesman, Scott Peterson, into a TV star as they chronicled his trial and conviction for killing his pregnant wife, Laci. The jury recommended that he be executed, ensuring appeals (and employment for scores of TV legal analysts) well into the spring sweeps ... um, well into next year.

The new personalities of 2004 had big shoes to fill. The year saw the passing of two of the leading figures of the second half of the 20th century and of two towering geniuses of entertainment.

Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States and father of the modern conservative movement, died in June. Reagan’s historic re-election landslide in 1984 set in motion the political realignment that led to the Republican takeover of all three branches of the federal government, and he did it with a twinkle in his eye and an anecdote — believe it if you want to — for every occasion.

Yasser Arafat, leader of the movement for a Palestinian homeland for four decades, died in November. Both honored with the Nobel Peace Prize and reviled as a terrorist demon, Arafat struggled on in poor health while all but imprisoned in his headquarters in the West Bank for the last years of his life, his continued presence blocking the emergence of a younger generation of Palestinian leaders with whom Israel could negotiate.

Ray Charles, who proved that you could graft any style of music to any other style of music and make it sing, died in June, having lived long enough to tutor Jamie Foxx for his starring role in Charles’ movie biography. First, he invented soul music by fusing gospel and blues. Then he added country to the mix to produce one of the most influential records ever released, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.” Even in death, he continued to lead the way — this month, his final album, “Genius Loves Company,” was nominated for seven Grammy awards.

Marlon Brando, the leading exponent of the Stanislavsky Method school of acting, died in July. Brando appeared on stage only from 1944 to 1947, but his final role, Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” swept away a century of stagecraft and replaced it with a naturalness and a realism that he would then take to the screen in landmark films like the movie version of “Streetcar,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now.”

One of Brando’s odder roles was as Jor-el in the 1978 movie “Superman,” whose title role was played by Christopher Reeve, who also died in 2004. Reeve was always respected for his performances, but his most important role was as an activist for spinal cord research after a horse-riding accident left him paralyzed.

This year also saw the passing of Archibald Cox and Sam Dash, two of the driving forces behind the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, on the same day. Also:

  • Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the nature of the DNA molecule, a landmark event in the history of science.
  • Pat Tillman, the NFL all-star who gave up his football career to serve as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan. He was killed by friendly fire.
  • Julia Child, the only French chef most Americans have ever known, even though she was as American as the American flag.
  • Susan Sontag, one of the most cogent writers and cultural critics of her time.
  • Rodney Dangerfield. No one was ever more wrong than he was when he complained that he couldn’t get no respect, no respect at all.
  • Jack Paar, host of NBC’s “Tonight” show when it was as much an intellectual feast as it was an entertainment diversion.
  • Bob Keeshan — a.k.a. Captain Kangaroo.
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson, hailed as perhaps the greatest photographer of the 20th century.
  • Singers Rick James and Robert Merrill, perhaps the first and only time they have ever been mentioned in the same sentence.
  • Apollo astronaut Gordon Cooper.
  • The Genesis space capsule, which crashed in the desert.

Oops, they did it again ...
And the hits just kept on coming:

  • National security adviser Condoleezza Rice — the next secretary of state — casually dismissed a classified intelligence report when its existence was made known during hearings of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The title: “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S." Its date: Aug. 6, 2001.
  • CBS News anchor Dan Rather had to apologize for his report questioning Bush’s service in the National Guard. Last month, he announced that he would retire in March.
  • Donald Trump’s casinos filed for bankruptcy, even as NBC was building its ratings on “The Apprentice,” a reality series that promoted him as America’s savviest businessman.
  • Someone — popular speculation has it that it was the Russians — tried to poison Ukrainian opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko with dioxin. It didn’t work, and Yushchenko was elected president in a rerun of a fraud-riven first vote.
  • Gillette decided to put its razors in welcome bags for delegates and media representatives at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. All of them were confiscated by security, costing the company more than $1 million.
  • Barbie should dump Ken, Mattel thought. Sales fell by more than 13 percent. (For 2005: Breast-Bejeweled Barbie®?)

Late in the year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it all in perspective. “You go to war  with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have,” Rummy observed.

That was 2004. It wasn’t the year we wanted. But it was the year we were stuck with.