Politics & Media
Dec 21, 2009, 10:01AM

How Strange Is Now: An Oddball Look at 2009

A smorgasbord of ruminations about a year that, blessedly, is almost over.

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**Ms Judi**

Yes, Michael Jackson bit the dust, occasioning the expected, and typically promiscuous, overabundance of media coverage, and the New York Yankees won the World Series, which still stings, but in reviewing 2009 I was more interested in what single event captured the imagination of the correspondents below (to whom I give thanks for participating on the fly). Before turning it over to the variety of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, two thoughts of my own.

First, the prosaic: Last February, when the world was besotted by President Obama, and his approval ratings were kissed by the angels, was there anyone who predicted that by year-end he’d be in the dumps? Not me.

But we’re talking weird, and so this event sticks out. On Dec. 19, Baltimore, and much of the East Coast, was hit with a major snowstorm, an unfortunate occurrence for recession-battered retailers and restaurateurs just days before Christmas. At two in the afternoon last Saturday I was sitting in my office at home, the skies as dark as a winter Berlin day, stewing that the roads were so dangerous (and unplowed) that any thought of holiday shopping was out of the question. I was flabbergasted, then, upon going downstairs and discovering that the mail had been delivered, despite the fact that this was the biggest December Baltimore blizzard since records were first recorded in 1883.

One of the simple pleasures I enjoyed when living in Manhattan was the cab ride from Tribeca to my boys’ school on the Upper East Side and passing the main branch of the Post Office on 8th Ave., a grand building with the USPS’ unofficial motto—“Neither sleet nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”—carved in stone. It’s a lovely anachronism, borne out one day in the mid-90s when an inconsequential ice storm descended upon the city and, when inquiring at the nearby Canal St. USPS branch the clerk told me, “Are you crazy? We can’t deliver mail in this weather!” 

I've no idea whether other citizens received their mail over the weekend, but I was mighty happy to have copies of The New Republic, The Spectator (with a delightful editorial vivisecting the hapless Gordon Brown) and The New Yorker (tardy, but it was a double issue) deposited at my doorstep. Now, I’m of the opinion that the USPS ought to be privatized (as well as Amtrak), but that hardly dampens my gratitude to our local carrier for keeping her “appointed rounds.

This trifling—to some, but not me—event wasn’t newsworthy, but it put a smile on my face, and that’s always swell. The smattering of other thoughts, in no particular order, follows:

Lionel Tiger, Rutgers University professor/author: Judge Jed Rakoff's overturning of the oily deal between Citicorp and the government re: lying about the Merrill Lynch purchase. Also, the firing of Peter Galbraith from election supervision in Afghanistan.

Michael Anft, Johns Hopkins Magazine: The whole year was a blizzard of strangeness, so the picture all blends together. Just thinking about our industry: Conde Nast's decision to close Gourmet, a pub with one million subscribers, the vast majority of them steadfastly loyal, struck me as strange. Even during these times when publications are teetering, Gourmet had what every magazine editor dreams of: an engaged audience, a decent cast of regular writers (Calvin Trillin, etc., with occasional cameos from heavy hitters like the late David Foster Wallace), and a well-funded, polished look. I hadn't realized that the ad industry had sunk quite so low. So, the announcement that Ruth Reichl was out of a job struck me as surreal.

Roger Kimball, co-editor/co-publisher, The New Criterion: For me, one of the strangest things about 2009 is that people aren’t demonstrating in the streets over the assault on freedom and prosperity orchestrated by the Democrats. A few days before the election of 2008, Obama told a crowd of supporters that they were just that far away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” When he spoke, America was the richest, freest and mightiest country in history. The activity of his administration has seriously made us noticeably less prosperous, less free, and less secure. The tea-party movement has been a welcome reaction to specific aspects of this assault, but I continue to find it strange that the populace as a whole isn’t more up in arms about the contemplated assaults on our freedom, security and prosperity.

David Remnick, editor, The New Yorker: I'm pretty sure that, no matter what your politics, the inauguration of a black man named Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States was the strangest event of the year; it was also the one of greatest promise.

John Ellis, finance/former Boston Globe columnist: Blago was the man in politics. He had a hairbrush that he called "the football" and he'd be driving to some function and would bark at his aides: "Who's got the football?" His chief of staff would often carry it, lest some hapless aide lost it. I still think about Blago and "the football."

James Taranto, The Wall Street Journal: It's much harder to write fiction than nonfiction, because fiction has to be believable whereas nonfiction only has to be true. The strangest event of this very strange year was one in which an utterly implausible fiction was passed off and accepted as true. A pair of twentysomething muckrakers, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, posed as a pimp and prostitute—he wore his grandmother's fur coat—and asked the "community organizing" group ACORN for help in setting up a child sex-slavery ring. In almost every case, the response was not Get out of here or I'm calling the cops, but, What can we do to help? If that wasn't strange enough, all this occurred just months after the inauguration of a president who had boasted that he once worked as a community organizer.

Barbara Bailey, physician, San Luis Obispo, CA: Dawn. Rome Airport. Jet lag. So glad my luggage made it. I hurried to the nearest escalator that would take me up to the train station. Dragging two suitcases behind me, I stepped onto the ascending staircase. As my arms stretched further behind me I realized the bags together were too wide and were stuck at the bottom. Too sleepy and surprised to let go of the handles, I held on only to have my feet rise with the step while my head and arms stayed in one place. Soon I was floating horizontally and then, with my feet higher than my head, I fell backwards, face up, head down, feeling the sharp steps chugging beneath me. Screaming, "Push the button!" I got the attention of two carabinieri who clambered up the still moving stairs and hauled me down by my armpits. My bags had been jostled free and my last vision before I collapsed in a bruised and bloody heap was two bright yellow suitcases, each upright on its own step, riding solo up to the train station.

Graydon Carter, editor, Vanity Fair: That we didn’t round up just about everybody on Wall Street and march them off to jail.

Habib Wicks, website proprietor: Drinking moonshine for the first time with self-described “hillbillies,” while camping at Talladega in an RV for the Spring NASCAR race. 

Scott Spiegel, website proprietor: "Climategate,” in which more pages of e-mails and computer code than in all the healthcare reform bills combined were leaked to the press by a whistleblower at the Climatic Research Unit revealing climate “scientists” losing data, threatening to delete data, fudging data, and doing everything but counting pregnant chads to make the results come out the way they wanted. Here’s a deal for Michael Mann, author of the discredited “hockey stick” graph of global temperature over the past few millennia: if “trick,” “hide,” and “decline” no longer mean what they did before, then neither do “dire,” “peer-reviewed,” or “consensus."

Gary Smith, finance, London: For my money, one of the strangest events of 2009 occurred only a week or so ago. Italy's superannuated prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, allegedly suffered a broken nose and two cracked teeth when a man with a history of mental problems hurled a metal and marble model of a Milanese cathedral in his face. I say Berlusconi allegedly suffered injury because there has been suggestion that the attack may have been staged, which in itself is very strange. But let's say the attack was real. There's a sense of rough justice having been served by the troubled PM getting his face smashed with the heavy model of a church. Berlusconi, after all—aside from being a bully and a whiner—is currently ensnared in two corruption trials, has been linked with a string of party girls and escorts, and has had to sit still while his wife publicly announced that she was divorcing him. And then there's the business of running the country, when time permits, which he doesn't seem to do terribly well. But back to the cathedral in the face. One of the strangest things about this very strange incident is the possibility that the assailant with the history of mental problems may have experienced, pre-attack, a moment of heightened lucidity.

Demian Kendall, student/writer, Baltimore: One of the weirdest moments was when Bill Clinton saved those two reporters in North Korea because it made his status in American society even nebulous. Is he our superhero? The American James Bond? Or did he just need a one-up in the "cool president" competition?

Tom Bevan, co-founder, Real Clear Politics: I’d have to say the White House beer summit was the strangest event of the year. First African-American president blunders his way into a race-controversy during a nationally televised press conference and tries to extricate himself by setting up another "teachable moment" on the White House lawn. The relentless, breathless coverage devoted to the event—right down to people analyzing the type of beer they were drinking—mystifies me to this day. 

Walter Kirn, author/journalist: Sitting in front of a movie camera for a big-screen cameo next to a character from one of my novels [Up in the Air], Ryan Bingham, as played by George Clooney. Nine years ago, his character had been nothing but an image (a fuzzy one) inside my head, but now, eight years later, there he was in the flesh, so to speak, in a form I would never have imagined, with a face I never quite dreamed he'd have, and there I was, too, playing a scene with him that obliged me to pretend that he was real. It was a moment of profound metaphysical confusion for me, but gratifying, good confusion. Every writer should have such a mind-warping experience.

Eric Boehlert, journalist: This immediately popped into my mind, so I'll say the strangest event of 2009 was watching conservative bloggers, led by Michelle Malkin, claim that two million people had descended upon Washington, D.C. in September for a tea party/anti-Obama rally. Yet local D.C. officials put the actual crowd estimate at between 60,000-70,000. Meaning, Malkin and company were only off by 1.9 million protesters.

Kurt Andersen, author/journalist/NPR talk show host: Two things: that I lived in Los Angeles for four months, having not spent more than a few weeks outside New York City in 33 years, and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 17.5 percent from where it was at the end of 2008.

Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page: Barack Obama using the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to deliver a lecture on just-war theory. No one saw that one coming. 

Clark Whelton, former Village Voice writer, speech writer for mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, New York: My strangest event of 2009 was doing some genealogy and discovering that I'm related to both Abraham Lincoln and Benedict Arnold. Which means, genetically speaking, I saved the Union and betrayed it to the Brits. It also means I won't be going to the theater anytime soon.

Phyllis Orrick, writer, Berkeley: Strangest event to happen in 2009? Finding out that a major lecture hall at UC Berkeley had been occupied by protesting students for four days while I worked a few blocks away and, because there is no real newspaper in Berkeley, was unaware until the remaining daily papers were full of stories about "terrorist" (thank you, Governator) students. They’d marched on the president's house at 11 p.m. the night the occupiers were arrested and a few stones were thrown, a window was broken and eight students were arrested, held on $100,000- plus bail for all sorts of terrible crimes until...prosecutors dropped the charges. It was strange because this campus is very sedate, with students seemingly more worried about either their student loans or where they're going to park the third-year lease Lexus their parents gave them to drive home in, but with no draft, not too worried about anything else. Now that seems to be changing. Though in four years, when future students expect to pay the new higher fees, it will return to business as usual.

Nicky Smith, student/filmmaker, Baltimore: The strangest thing I saw in 2009 happened in November. I was at a Subway shop in Charles Village, and got a sandwich. When the guy who made my sub rung me up and the transaction was complete, he went and sat down at one of the tables. He put his head in his hands and started crying hysterically, almost shouting, "I'm sorry! I’m so sorry!” I couldn't tell if he was on the phone or not, maybe talking to a girlfriend. I wish I hadn't left the store so soon, because this still confuses the hell out of me.

Sam, food writer, Santa Fe: Traveling through New Orleans I was stuck in a torrential rainstorm. It was quite surreal, I felt like I might get caught up in Hurricane Katrina II. While walking though the French Quarter I heard a scream and looked down Bourbon St. A horse-drawn carriage driver, who had passengers, had gotten out to direct the horse from the downpour. The horse got spooked and took off down the street. The tourists in the carriage had no idea what to do as the driver ran after the buggy screaming. This hilariously insane moment lasted a good three blocks before someone was able to stop the horse. I'll bet they didn't have to pay for that ride and I'll bet they never take another one again.

Forest Casey, photographer/writer, Los Angeles: My mom called the day that GM declared bankruptcy. She had always been a critic of the Big Three: the closest we'd gotten to buying American was a lease on a Saturn station wagon for a couple of years. She'd make fun of her two brothers for driving their overweight SUVs and spending their paychecks on gas. For supporting a company that abandoned midtown Detroit when they moved from their Grand Ave. HQ, a company that pillaged Flint after abandoning a different Avenue—the Park Ave.—when they closed the Buick City plant in '99. So it shocked me to hear her so upset on the phone. "When you were born, I was still on your grandfather's health care plan that he got through GM. We wouldn't have been able to afford the hospital bills otherwise." I wouldn't have been possible otherwise. And it looks like that kind of health care coverage from a strong-armed and deep-pocketed corporation won't happen again after 2009.

Becky Lang, writer, Minneapolis: The Sponge Bob Burger King commercial was strange. "I like square butts and I cannot lie" is an advertising slogan that truly proves how schizophrenic today’s audience profiles have become. Combining childhood media with an anthem of sexual fetishism might be one of the most lucid insights into the intricate humor of the 15-40-year-old straight, carnivorous man—aka Burger King's target demographic.

Joachim Blunck, film production, Los Angeles: Something I started noticing earlier in the year—I'm reading the obituaries. It's not morbid; it's just that people who shaped how I think and view the world are starting to drop with frightening regularity. I think the deluge will come over the next couple years as Boomers head into their third acts. Sobering thought … then again, I just picked up a nice pinot at the market.

Joe Rodrigue, engineering, Japan: The only thing I can think of that might qualify as strange is Obama (via Holder) moving the KSM trial to Manhattan so that Bush administration counter-terrorism intelligence and tactics can be exposed, giving lefty Euroweenies the ammunition they need to prosecute Bush and Cheney.

  • I enjoyed this smorgasbord of thoughts. I'd like to weigh in on this whole stinking decade. I think it sucked monkey lungs on toast. I'm not going to go over details, we all know what they were/are. I'm trying to have high hopes for next year. Personally I don't have to work for the next seven days and I have a refrigerator full of 24 ounce cans of Budweiser (19 total, no shit!) and "Sunny Afternoon" by the Kinks is blaring on my boom box, so for the moment all is well. Happy Holidays everybody. Cheers, Marty.

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  • I know it was in the very beginning of the year, but I still question as to why it happened. The weirdest moment of 2009 for me was when the Braves signed 36 year old pitcher Derek Lowe to a 4 year 60MM deal. What Wren's reasoning was, I still don't know.

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  • I'd have to say Michael Jackson. Like millions of others, his existence was dormant in my mind until I heard the news, and I was surprised by how much it affected me. He was the last true universal pop cultural figure, at least of my generation.

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  • that snow storm would take my vote...maybe not so much strange as a huge pain in the ass, I'm still stuck in Massachussetts trying to get home. fuck this white shit, and fuck winter, bring back beach tables.

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  • Well, that was a fun read. I think the most (unintentionally) humorous comment was from Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter, about hauling off all Wall Street's big shots to the pen. Typical elitist New York City spin. Here's a guy who makes a mint at Vanity Fair, and owns a restaurant in Manhattan, and he's criticizing other fat cats. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

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  • The fact that Sarah Palin is considered and treated, as a legitimate politician/thinker even after death panels, quitting her governorship, and filling a book full of lies and deceptions.

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  • The trivial mind exposed: the Cardinals in the Super Bowl! And what a great game - can hardly be disappointed to lose such a wonderful show. And to take a page from the Smith book by commenting on the commenters' comments: disappointed in Obama, sure, but Roger Kimball seems to be "exaggerating", to put it mildly.

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  • Thanks for the anti-Obama link at the top to a wonderfully ironic website. Viva status quo, Russ!

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  • At some point this year (probably after the elections), there will be a reckoning in the political blogosphere over which major polling outfits have most accurately predicted the country's political sentiments. Rasmussen has, for months now, been getting low approval numbers for Obama. Pretty much no other major outlet has him anywhere close to Rasmussen's numbers (Gallup has him at 49/44 right now). It's gotten to the point where many pundits and wonks that I respect are showing aggregate polling charts that exclude Rasmussen for being such a clear outlier. The truth will probably fall somewhere in the middle, but Rasmussen is slowly turning into a vehicle for the Right's projection of their own false reality.

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  • Maybe. I think there are too many polls, and they're released too often. Gallup remains, at least to me, the most reliable indicator. Rasmussen is taking a lot of heat right now, but that could change. Until several years ago, John Zogby was considered the "crystal ball" of pollsters, mostly because was dead-on in '94. The New York Times/CBS poll is considered an outlier by some, as it's consistently overestimated the support of liberal candidates. (Two days before the '96 election the Times poll has Clinton winning by 17 points over Dole; the actual result was around 8 points.) Surprisingly, the FOX polls haven't come under as much fire as you'd think, probably because they reflect the composite number. But I'm interested, Andrew, if you have any hard evidence that Scott Rasmussen is "slowly turning into a vehicle for the Right's projection of their own false reality." I may be wrong, but it would seem that if a pollster wants to stay in business there's no advantage in being clearly biased.

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  • I should have qualified my statement with a "could very well turn into" or some such. As I wrote, they have consistently delivered outlier results that trend Republican. Now, how could a biased pollster stay in business? The same way FOX, POLITICO, the NYT, the WSJ stay in business: bias means you have a primed and ready audience to digest whatever you say. Rasmussen has established enough of a name for itself that it doesn't need the approval of Krugman or Yglesias or Sullivan; FOX and POLITICO will report on their polls and keep them in the game.

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  • I don't know about this. In the '08 election, Rasmussen was close to Obama's winning total. I read his reports and, like C-SPAN's estimable Brian Lamb, I'm not sure where he stands politically. Real Clear Politics includes his polls, as well as the gamut of them, and that's a go-to site for people who want to digest every single political morsel. But your raise interesting questions: I wonder if the Times, or WSJ, or WashPost hires its polling firm with an agenda in mind.

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  • It's probably not as simple as hiring a polling group that explicitly falls in line with the pub's world view — especially when dependably biased pubs like the NYT and WSJ (And I mean that in a good way; you know their overall political inclinations and can thus digest their respective excellent reporting unencumbered) and the mainstream cable networks they pair up with offer up relatively middle of the road poll results and coverage (talking pretty generally, here). In general I try to stick with unaffiliated polling groups, because gauging polling data as a non-wonk is hard enough as it is without the trying to take into account bilateral bias or all that jazz. Political polling is either one of two metaphors: like NASA needing another breakthrough lest it slide irreversibly into blah blah blah, or like finance economists, wedded to a cycle of grand pronouncements followed by stunning errors.

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