LOOKING BACK ON 2004, we have to conclude that it could have been worse.
"How??" you ask, spitting out your coffee.
(Illustration by Richard Thompson)
Well, okay, a giant asteroid could have smashed into the Earth and destroyed all human life except Paris Hilton and William Hung. Or Florida could have been hit by 20 hurricanes, instead of just 17.
Or the Yankees could have won the World Series.
But, no question, 2004 was bad. Consider:
-- We somehow managed to hold a presidential election campaign that for several months was devoted almost entirely to the burning issue of: Vietnam.
-- Our Iraq policy, which was discussed, debated and agreed upon right up to the very highest levels of the White House, did not always seem to be wildly popular over there in Iraq.
-- Osama bin Laden remained at large for yet another year (although we did manage, at long last, to put Martha Stewart behind bars).
-- The federal budget deficit continued to worsen, despite the concerted effort of virtually every elected official in Washington -- Republican or Democrat -- to spend more money.
-- As a nation, we managed somehow to get even fatter, despite the fact that anti-carbohydrate mania worsened to the point where the average American would rather shoot heroin than eat a bagel.
-- The "reality"-show cancer continued to metastasize, so that you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing either Donald Trump or a cavalcade of dimwits emoting dramatically about eating bugs, losing weight, marrying a millionaire or remodeling a bathroom.
-- Perhaps most alarming of all, Cher yet again extended her "farewell" tour, which began during the Carter administration and is now expected to continue until the sun goes out.
So, all things considered, we're happy to be entering a new year, which, according to our calculations, will be 2005 (although the exit polls are predicting it will be 1997). But before we move on, let's swallow our anti-nausea medication and take one last look back at 2004, which began, as so many years seem to, with . . .
. . . a month that opens with all the magic, excitement and glamour conjured up by the words "Iowa caucuses." All the political experts -- having gauged the mood of the state by dining with each other at essentially three Des Moines restaurants -- agree that the Democratic nomination has already been locked up by feisty yet irritable genius former Vermont governor Howard Dean, thanks to his two unbeatable weapons: (a) the Internet and (b) college students wearing orange hats.
But it turns out that the Iowa voters, many of whom apparently do not eat at the right restaurants, are out of the loop regarding the Dean strategic brilliance. Instead they vote for John "I Served In Vietnam" Kerry, who served in Vietnam and also has many policies, although nobody, including him, seems to know for sure what they are. Dean, reacting to his Iowa loss, gives an emotional concession speech that ends with him making a sound like a hog being castrated with a fondue fork. Incredibly, this fails to improve his poll standings.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration, increasingly disturbed by the bad news from Iraq, cancels the White House's lone remaining newspaper subscription (Baseball Weekly).
But the news is much better from Mars, where yet another spunky l'il NASA robot vehicle lands and begins transmitting back photographs of rocks that appear virtually identical to the rock photos beamed back by all the other spunky l'il NASA robots, thus confirming suspicions that the universe has a lot of rocks in it. In other outer-space news, Michael Jackson, clearly concerned about his upcoming trial on charges of child molestation, dances on the roof of an SUV.
In lifestyle news, the hot trend is "metrosexuals" -- young males who are not gay but are seriously into grooming and dressing well. There are only eight documented cases of males like this, all living in two Manhattan blocks, but they are featured in an estimated 17,000 newspaper and magazine articles over the course of about a week, after which this trend, like a minor character vaporized by aliens in a "Star Trek" episode, disappears and is never heard from again.
In sports, Pete Rose publishes a book in which he at last confesses to an allegation that dogged him throughout his baseball career: He's a jerk.
Speaking of shocking revelations, in . . .
. . . the nation -- already troubled by bad news from Iraq, coupled with a resurgence in terrorism and a slow economic recovery -- is traumatized by something that leaves a deep and lasting scar on the fragile national psyche: Janet Jackson's right nipple, which is revealed for a full three ten-thousandths of a second during the Super Bowl halftime show. This event is so traumatic that the two teams are unable to complete the game, with many players simply lying on the field in the fetal position, whimpering.