If 2004 could be distilled to its essence, it would boil down to
We seemed to reason that tough times called for getting tougher. Our
national mood oozed testosterone, much of it outside the body of baseball
slugger Barry Bonds. Whether in politics, business, culture or sports,
Americans wrinkled their noses at nuance and niceties, embracing instead the
big and bold, the brazen and the brawny: Who needs sensitivity when you can
succeed on steroids?
The dictionary defines bravado as either defiant courage or a strutting
show of false bravery. In other words, bravado lies in the eye of the beholder
-- which helps explain why the country remained so divided at year's end.
We the people fell hard for leaders who exuded confidence -- even those
with confidence in confidence alone.
Voters re-elected a pugnacious president whose poll numbers soared when
he told the country, "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger --
which in Texas is called walking." Time magazine announced it was naming
President Bush its man of the year "for sticking to his guns (literally and
figuratively) ... and for reshaping the rules of politics to fit his 10-gallon-
hat leadership style."
With the residue of the Sept. 11 attacks still clinging to the national
consciousness, a majority of voters responded to the molten rhetoric of
Georgia Sen. Zell Miller, a Democrat who told cheering GOP convention
delegates: "George W. Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let
them go to get a better grip." Conventioneers were treated to a video
depicting a fake French poodle named "Fifi Kerry," an image the National Rifle
Association borrowed in its "That Dog Don't Hunt!" ads lampooning Democratic
nominee Sen. John Kerry as a sweater-clad poodle replete with pink bow. A Bank
One Corp. survey showed voters were most likely to compare war hero Kerry to a
poodle, Bush to a rottweiler.
Recent political theory holds that the Democratic Party's emphasis on
education, health care and social services makes it the country's "mommy party,
" while the GOP's focus on national security and crime-cutting makes it the
"daddy party." If so, the country decided in 2004 that it needed a father more
than a mother. One-fifth of the electorate said terrorism was its biggest
concern, and the GOP got 9 out of 10 of those presidential votes. The party
swept the White House, the House and the Senate.
The Bush administration remained robust and unwavering -- praise that
also could be rendered to a bull in a china shop. Vice President Dick Cheney
ridiculed Kerry's talk of "a more sensitive war on terror" and told Sen.
Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to perform anatomically impossible sex with himself.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said of U.S. interrogation tactics: "I stand
for eight to 10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?" And
Education Secretary Rod Paige said of his critics within the National
Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, "The NEA is a
Californians continued to give a two-thirds approval rating to a governor
uniquely suited for the current political climate: a former action hero film
star and bodybuilding champion with a physique once described as resembling a
condom overstuffed with walnuts. Arnold Schwarzenegger promised to "kick butt"
and "blow up" bureaucratic boxes, and he labeled Democratic legislative
opponents "girlie men" -- although he also ducked hard choices by getting
voters to approve $15 billion in new borrowing.
That didn't deter supporters pushing a constitutional amendment to
someday enable the Austrian-born Schwarzenegger to run for president.
Even folks in the Lone Star State seemed as if they had to prove their
manhood. Kinky Friedman, front man for the country music group the Texas
Jewboys, ran for governor "to fight the wussification of the state of Texas."
In San Francisco, the new mayor everybody thought was a mild-mannered
Clark Kent took their breath away with his audacious order that City Hall
begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Gavin Newsom acknowledged
in February he was throwing a "bomb," breaking state law in the process, and
making him anathema to conservatives everywhere. By August, the California
Supreme Court ruled the city's authorization of the marriages was superseded
by state law and voided them. In November, some Democrats complained the
mayor's brazenness helped cost them the presidential election. But Newsom's
popularity soared in San Francisco, and he said history would prove him on the
right side of the issue.
The temporary triumph of same-sex marriage prompted a smack-down from
defenders of traditional marriage who resorted to their own tough tactics.
They beat the issue on 11 state ballots in November. Televangelist Jimmy
Swaggart was hardly the voice of diplomacy when he sermonized: "I've never
seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I'm gonna be blunt and plain: If
one ever looks at me like that, I'm gonna kill him and tell God he died."
Bursts of startling assertiveness sprang from even the unlikeliest of
places. In the Bay Area, there was this posting on Craigslist: "I would like
to fight a Bush supporter. ... If you are one, have a fiery streak, please
contact me so we can meet and physically fight. I would like to beat the s --
out of you."
Nobody usually seems more happy-go-lucky than exercise guru Richard
Simmons, but when a fellow airline passenger announced, "Hey everybody, it's
Richard Simmons, let's drop our bags and rock to the '50s," Simmons approached
the 250-pound ultimate cage fighter and slapped him, saying, "It's not nice to
make fun of people with issues." Fortunately, the judge did not send him to
the anger-management assembly at Woodlawn High School in Maryland, where a
fight broke out leading to the arrest of 11 students and two adults.
And there was this e-mail, sent by a University of Missouri-Columbia
sorority blood drive coordinator to her Gamma Phi Beta sisters urging them to
do whatever was necessary to open their veins: "I don't care if you got a
tattoo last week. LIE. I don't care if you have a cold. Suck it up. We all do.
Even the toe-shoes crowd got tougher than toenails: The Roanoke Ballet
Theater in Virginia premiered "NASCAR Ballet" in April. Dancers clad in race-
suit unitards decorated with sponsor logos twirled around a simulated
racetrack, occasionally crashing into one another, their choreography matched
to New Age music punctuated by engine-revving.
The film buzz in 2004 focused on two strikingly different but similarly
in-your-face films, "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." America
was enthralled by "The Apprentice," a reality TV show evocative of a gladiator
ring, in which contestants engaged in corporate combat to impress megalomaniac
Donald Trump. NBC chieftain Jeff Zucker joked that Trump was "the only thing
that stands between NBC and a total collapse." The epitome of bravado, the
Donald tried to trademark the phrase, "You're fired."
Network news continued to lose influence to cable news and the country's
unofficial court jester, fake news anchor Jon Stewart of Comedy Central. The
No. 1 "blogged" news item of the year, according to the automated blog portal
BlogPulse, was Stewart's stunning appearance on the show "Crossfire" in which
he begged the hosts to cease their superficial shouting matches and engage in
thoughtful debate. His argument was undercut when he called one of the hosts a
slang term for the male sex organ.
The justice system was preoccupied dealing with aggressive behavior that
crossed the line into depravity. In the liberal Bay Area, juries returned
death verdicts on three separate defendants within a five-day window in
December. Most infamous among the white-middle-class defendants was Scott
Peterson, convicted of killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and his unborn son and
dumping their bodies into the bay.
Another jury deadlocked in June on whether to convict three men of first-
degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Gwen Araujo of Newark. Araujo --
born male but living as a girl since the age of 14 -- was beaten, strangled
and dumped after some young men discovered her biological identity. An expert
psychological witness for the defense told jurors that when immature
heterosexual males discovered the truth, "it would flip them out. ... You have
the shame of the individual plus the shame of having my buddies know that I
did this." Prosecutors are retrying the case.
Rape charges against Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant were dropped
after his accuser, named on the Web and the target of criticism and death
threats from basketball fans, chose not to cooperate with prosecutors. Bryant
issued this statement: "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was
consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident
the same way I did."
No contrition from Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News' talk show "The
O'Reilly Factor," who said of the sex-harassment suit brought by his then-
associate producer Andrea Mackris: "If I have to go down, I'm willing to do it.
I'm going to take a stand. I'm a big mouth on the air, and I'm a big mouth
off the air." The big mouth ultimately paid a financial settlement.
In Sacramento, politicians tested the limits of credibility. Secretary of
State Kevin Shelley, renowned for bad boy behavior, and Don Perata, newly
elected president pro tem of the state Senate, were under investigation in
tangled financial cases.
Around the globe, surveys showed that the United States increasingly was
viewed as not just the sole superpower but as a bully. Even the Brits, our
closest allies in recent years, grew increasingly wary. The Times of London
decried Bush's identification with cowboy mythology, observing, "Intriguingly,
the Oxford English Dictionary defines cowboy as: 'An unscrupulous or reckless
person ... esp. an unqualified one'. There is no correspondingly negative
definition in Webster's American Dictionary."
It was left to the Bush administration to make the case that it was
wearing the white hat, standing up to terrorists and despots -- and showing
the cajones the United Nations lacked. The chief case in point was Iraq.
"Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the
civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver,
" Bush declared in the spring. Later, he emphasized that the U.S. invasion of
Iraq was not colonialist, and that the goal was Iraqi elections scheduled for
January: "I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make
them American. Iraqis will write their own history and find their own way."
But the president's unfortunate early taunt to Iraqi insurgents --
"Bring it on" -- haunted his presidency as the U.S. effort bogged down there
and the U.S. death toll exceeded 1,300 soldiers, with Iraqi resistance and
civilian deaths much higher. Nothing did more to damage the U.S. reputation in
the world's eyes than the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which U.S. troops
photographed themselves humiliating and torturing Iraqi prisoners. In a
military hearing, Army investigator Paul Arthur offered this explanation: "It
was just for fun, kind of venting their frustration."
Bush denounced the incident as unrepresentative of American values, but
nobody high in the Pentagon lost a job. Polls indicated most Americans were
sickened by the scandal and that many had serious reservations about what they
saw as an overreaching foreign policy, a rush to war under the false pretenses
of weapons of mass destruction, and the erosion of civil liberties at home.
So why were enough of them ready to endorse a second Bush administration?
Perhaps they had watched the video clip of the U.S. civilian captive who
said, "My name is Nick Berg, my father's name is Michael, my mother's name is
Susan. ... I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah," just seconds before
his captors in Iraq decapitated him and displayed their barbaric trophy.
Perhaps they had seen the aftermath of the Madrid train bombings in March, in
which suspects who were videotaped claiming to represent al Qaeda are accused
of killing 191 people and derailing the expected outcome of Spanish elections.
Perhaps they had followed the horrifying fate of 1,200 people taken hostage
by Chechen guerrillas at a school in the Russian republic of North Ossetia --
after a battle with Russian security forces, half of the 340 civilians left
dead were children.
And perhaps when they saw deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein extracted
from his hiding hole and headed for justice, these Americans thought to
themselves, "One bad guy down, who knows how many to go?"
At year's end, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden remained at large, Iran
and North Korea continued to pursue nuclear programs, and almost nobody felt
as safe as they used to.
So the American electorate decided to trust not its heart, and not its
brain, but Bush's backbone.
Distilling an entire year, of course, is invariably simplistic. To brand
2004 the year of swagger is to also be reminded of the exceptions. Testifying
before the Sept. 11 commission, former White House anti-terrorism chief
Richard Clarke brought victims' families to tears with the simple
acknowledgement: "Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed
you. We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that
failure, I would ask ... for your understanding and for your forgiveness."
Other news reshaped the world in 2004. Alzheimer's disease claimed former
President Ronald Reagan, and the world also lost Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat, singer Ray Charles and an estimated 80,000 people to genocide by Arab
militias in the Darfur region of Sudan.
It would be hard for any American to argue with a straight face that 2004
was a hallmark year for diplomacy, modesty, sensitivity or compassion.
This brings us to baseball, a game that fans persist in seeing not so
much as a pastime or a business but as a window into the soul of America. A
strategy of shock-and-awe drove many players -- we learn about more every
day -- to take steroids. They wanted to morph into stronger creatures,
albeit artificially stronger, who could win. The sport is mired in scandal not
because players were using their brains or their skills, but because they bet
everything on brawn.
In 2004, getting pumped up was an apt metaphor for what was happening in
the world beyond the outfield fences.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle