Cover Story

NATION: A year in review

"Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them." - George W. Bush

Issue: "Year in Review 2001," Dec. 29, 2001

On Sept. 11, everything changed-including the definition of news. Reviewing the events of the past 12 months used to be a painful exercise in cutting to the bone. So much to say, so little space. How could a few pages do justice to a year's worth of news? Then came the day that the sky fell down on New York and Washington, and suddenly little else seemed very important anymore. It was as if the cloud of smoke and debris that swallowed up the Manhattan skyline obscured as well the mental landmarks that define the passage of time in any normal year. Policy debates, political scandals, economic crises-they all seemed so important before Sept. 11. Maybe, God willing, they will be again next year. But in 2001 we changed the way we measured what's important. Much of what used to be news now seemed, in the words of the Preacher, to be vanity. And in the long run, that might be the biggest news story of all. Check out any time you like
The world has always marveled at America's orderly transitions of power. How could a person or a party at the center of the political universe simply step aside, let it all go? From a distance, it looks so easy. Up close, however, things can be messier. The outgoing president and his party seemed especially loath to turn over the keys they'd held for eight long years. As the clock ticked down, the Clinton administration churned out record numbers of midnight regulations, while the president himself signed a slew of controversial pardons that would turn even some leading Democrats against him. Clinton bureaucrats moving out of their government offices left behind graffiti-covered walls, sliced phone lines, obscene voicemail messages, and wrecked computers. The extent of the damage would not be fully known until June. In the legislative branch, meanwhile, petulant Democrats declared war on the Bush cabinet. Linda Chavez, the president's first choice for secretary of labor, was forced to withdraw her name after critics revealed she had housed an illegal immigrant from Central America eight years earlier. With one scalp already under their belts, Senate Democratic chiefs began sharpening their hatchets for the most controversial nominee of all: Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft. Liberals descended on Washington to plead, pressure, and promise the end of the world if a conservative Christian took over the Justice Department. A month-long media circus finally culminated with nearly a week of contentious hearings. But this time Team Bush held firm, and the new president claimed his first major victory, 58-42. The debate never leaves
"It's the economy, Stupid." The sign may not have been on the new president's desk, but the sentiment was clearly on his mind as Mr. Bush addressed his first joint session of Congress on Feb. 27. "The growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs," Mr. Bush declared. "The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I am here to ask for a refund." Although a tax-cut promise had been at the very center of Mr. Bush's year-long campaign, Democrats were shocked-shocked!-that he would actually deliver on that promise with his first budget. They countered with a smaller tax cut of their own, but Mr. Bush stood his ground. The battle lines were drawn. Other battles brewed. Just days earlier, in a scene reminiscent of the Cold War, government agents nabbed Robert Hanssen, a 27-year FBI veteran, as he tried to pass classified documents to the Russians. It was hardly the first time. Investigators charged that in exchange for $1.4 million, Mr. Hanssen had leaked some 6,000 pages of sensitive materials during his 15-year career as a spy. Another, brighter career came to an abrupt end when 49-year-old racing legend Dale Earnhardt crashed his black Chevrolet into a concrete wall at the Daytona 500. The crash was etched forever in the memories of some 30 million fans watching the race live. Many said they were shaken by the knowledge they had just seen a life snuffed out before their eyes. Little did they know it was just a prelude. March madness
A 15-year-old shooter opened fire at his San Diego-area high school on March 5, killing two students and wounding 13. Armed with a gun he found at home, Andrew Williams started his shooting spree in the boys' bathroom before moving into the hallway and squeezing off dozens of additional rounds. Two boys, aged 14 and 17, were killed. The San Diego tragedy was the worst school shooting since Columbine, just two years before. The Pacific Northwest, by contrast, had gone 35 years without a serious earthquake, even though the region is known for its major fault lines. That record was broken when a 6.8-magnitude quake rocked Washington state, cracking the Capitol dome in Olympia and trapping tourists at the top of a swaying Space Needle. Human casualties were light, however, leaving residents to wonder if the Big One was yet to come. Meanwhile, a shaky economy continued to endure jolts of its own. Both the Commerce Department and the Federal Reserve issued yet more gloomy reports, sending the stock market into a tailspin. Still, economic measures are not as precise as the geological kind, so the extent of the damage wouldn't be known for months: Subsequent government economic data confirmed that March was the month that the economy officially slipped into recession. Tension city
Just as President Bush was tussling with the Chinese over a U.S. spyplane and its crew, political opponents held his domestic agenda hostage, as well. In a bid for the political spotlight, John McCain on April 2 forced a Senate vote on his controversial campaign-finance reform bill, despite objections from the White House. The measure passed 59-41, but House Republicans held together and buried the bill, saving the president from exercising a bitterly divisive veto. In Cincinnati, racial tensions boiled over after police fatally shot an unarmed black teenager. Riots ensued, and on April 12 Mayor Charles Luken declared a state of emergency that included dusk-to-dawn curfews. Just as Cincinnati returned to normal, a jury in Birmingham, Ala., began hearing evidence against Thomas Blanton, a white supremacist charged with bombing a black church nearly 40 years earlier. The crime, in which four teenage girls were killed as they prepared for a Sunday morning service, was considered one of the most galvanizing events of the civil-rights era. He had been a suspect from the start, but Mr. Blanton had never been tried. After four decades, however, it took the jury only two hours to find him guilty. He was later sentenced to life in prison. Rebels and rebates, energy and enemies
Maybe it was spring fever. After his winter of discontent, Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords-elected over and over as a Republican-announced on May 24 he was switching his party affiliation. With the Senate previously split 50-50, the Jeffords defection cost Republicans control of the upper chamber. The move meant little in terms of full floor votes, since Mr. Jeffords had voted like a Democrat for years. But without control of committee chairmanships, the GOP would find itself all but stymied for the rest of the year as it tried to advance the president's legislative agenda. Despite the Jeffords jump, both the House and Senate just two days later gave Mr. Bush the tax cut he'd built his campaign around. At $1.35 billion, the cut was less than the president asked for, but still represented the biggest rollback in two decades. As a quick boost to the ailing economy, the cut was made retroactive, and the Treasury Department quickly began writing refund checks to almost every taxpayer. With gas approaching $3 a gallon in the West and Midwest, it looked like Americans might have to use their tax refunds just to keep the lights on at home. Nothing could keep the lights on in California, where rolling blackouts crippled the economy and sent Democratic Gov. Gray Davis into a political tailspin. Mr. Davis met with President Bush on May 29 to ask for federal price caps on energy-a request that the White House politely declined. Also on May 29, a New York jury convicted four men of conspiring to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The terrorist attacks were three years old and faraway, so news of the convictions was largely met with a shrug. Only months later would the name of a co-conspirator in the case begin to ring a bell: Osama bin Laden. No more terror?
Timothy McVeigh, considered at the time the worst terrorist in American history, was executed by lethal injection on June 11. McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City took 168 lives. The government delayed for one month his execution, the first of a federal prisoner since 1963, after FBI officials admitted they failed to turn over some 4,000 pages of documents to defense attorneys. In the end, however, the courts deemed the documents immaterial, and the execution went forward as nearly 250 victims and victims' families looked on. With McVeigh's death, America seemed ready to put thoughts of terrorism to rest. Just two days later, however, U.S. citizens around the world were warned to be on a heightened state of alert after a New York grand jury returned indictments against 13 Arabs in the 1996 bombing of an American military compound in Saudi Arabia. Still, the warning caused barely a ripple at home. With spring in the air and Timothy McVeigh in the ground, domestic terrorism seemed unthinkable. Unthinkable was just the word on many lips after Andrea Yates, a 37-year-old mother in suburban Houston, drowned her five young children in the bathtub. The oldest victim was 7, the youngest, just 6 months. Her husband, Russell, a NASA engineer, said she had been suffering from postpartum depression and had earlier attempted suicide. Broken hearts, artificial hearts, artificial humans
Philandering politicians and interns: Wasn't that chapter of our national life in the past? It took nine weeks and three interviews with police, but Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.) finally admitted to having an affair with Chandra Levy, the 24-year-old former intern missing since April 30. She still hasn't been found. Throughout the slow-news summer weeks, the Levy story had become a national obsession and attracted 24/7 media attention-despite the lone holdout, the CBS Evening News, whose star Dan Rather refused to cover the story. Mr. Condit's belated admission on July 6 added fuel to the fire. Doctors in Louisville announced on July 3 that they had successfully implanted the world's first self-contained artificial heart. Creators of the AbioCor device said they hoped the four-pound pump would allow a better quality of life than the Jarvik-7, a cumbersome artificial heart tested in the early 1980s. After weeks of anonymity, the recipient of the AbioCor, 59-year-old Robert Tools, came forward to thank publicly the doctors who had extended his life. It was not to last much longer, however: After 151 days with the device whirring in his chest, Mr. Tools died on Nov. 30 of internal bleeding. Another medical announcement touched off a political debate that would last for weeks. On July 10, scientists at a fertility clinic in Virginia revealed that they had created human embryos specifically for purposes of medical experimentation rather than procreation. The debate over embryo research dominated the political agenda for the rest of the month. President Bush discussed the issue during his first meeting with the pope on July 23, and a week later the House of Representatives passed a sweeping ban on human cloning; the Senate has yet to act. Stem-cell, sell-out?
President Bush went before the TV cameras Aug. 9 to make one of the most politically charged speeches of his young administration. After months of public hand-wringing, he declared a near-ban on embryonic stem-cell research. The 60 or so stem-cell lines already stored in labs around the country would be available for experimentation, the president said. In those cases, "the life and death decision has already been made." The new policy was widely hailed by pro-lifers, who objected to the destruction of human embryos in pursuit of medical breakthroughs. After six months of stormy relations with religious conservatives, John DiIulio, director of the administration's signature faith-based initiative, resigned on Aug. 20. A registered Democrat and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. DiIulio angered much of the Republican base by attempting to limit evangelicals' participation in the very program they had helped to create. By year's end the White House had yet to name a successor to Mr. DiIulio, and the once-sweeping faith-based initiative had been scaled back to a series of tax breaks for charitable donations. 9/11
A date that would become shorthand for terror started out clear and cool and quiet in New York City. Suddenly, one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center burst into flames. Rumors swirled of a bomb or a cruise missile. Half an hour later, on live TV, a jet crashed into the second tower. Within two hours, both towers would crumble, killing more than 3,000. A third jet crashed into the Pentagon just outside Washington, claiming nearly 200 lives. And in rural Pennsylvania, a fourth airliner, reportedly headed for the White House, was brought down when passengers banded together to overwhelm the terrorists. On Sept. 13, both houses of Congress voted to allow President Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" in responding to the terrorist attacks. Only one dissenter voted no. After an unprecedented four-day closure, Wall Street reopened for business on Sept. 17. The Dow promptly tumbled 7 percent, and continued to decline throughout most of the month. It would take nearly three months for the market once again to reach its pre-Sept. 11 levels. Addressing a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, a grim but determined President Bush promised a long, unremitting campaign against terrorism. Americans seemed to be reassured by the president's words: Immediately after the speech, Mr. Bush's approval ratings soared-and remained high for the rest of the year. On Sept. 21, both houses of Congress rushed to pass a $15 billion bailout for the airline industry and to set up a trust fund for compensating victims of the attacks. Making good on his vow to choke off funding for terrorist groups, President Bush on Sept. 24 announced an immediate freeze on all U.S. assets of such groups. Banks around the world quickly followed his example, fearing American financial sanctions for failing to cooperate. Air war in Afghanistan; anthrax, acrimony at home
When a tabloid newspaper employee in Florida died of inhalation anthrax on Oct. 5, officials in Washington at first stressed that the timing might be coincidental. That illusion, fragile as it was, would be shattered altogether five days later when a secretary to NBC anchorman Dan Rather contracted the deadly disease after opening a tainted letter. First airplanes, now envelopes: The stuff of everyday life had become tools of terror. The anthrax hysteria reached Capitol Hill on Oct. 15, when millions of spores were released from a letter mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Officials shut down government office buildings, and exiled lawmakers tried to do their jobs with skeleton staffs in temporary quarters. Eventually, law enforcement would discover anthrax in mail processing facilities in three different states, as well as at the State Department, Justice Department, and Voice of America. By the end of the month, the disease claimed three additional lives: two Washington postal workers and a hospital stockroom employee in New York. Americans weary of bad news got something to cheer about on Oct. 7, when the first bombs rained down on Afghanistan's Taliban regime and its al-Qaeda allies. U.S. forces quickly took out easy targets like airports and radar installations, but President Bush cautioned that the military campaign against terror would be a long one. Back in Washington, the political unity that had reigned for weeks showed its first signs of fraying. Democrats and Republicans clashed over how to stimulate the economy (government spending vs. tax cuts) and how to shore up homeland defenses (Republicans wanted U.S. military tribunals for non-citizen suspects, Democrats balked). On both issues, the House quickly passed legislation favored by the White House, but Democrats in the Senate held out. Not again?
News of another New York City plane crash, this time into a crowded neighborhood, threatened to send an already-jittery nation over the edge. The M.O. appeared similar, after all, and the timing-two months and a day after the terrorist attacks-looked awfully sinister. By mid-December, investigators still didn't know exactly what caused the tail fin to fall off American Airlines Flight 587, but they had at least eliminated sabotage from the list. That was good news for an industry tottering on the brink of bankruptcy-but no consolation to the families of the 265 victims of the crash. Even as Justice Department investigators probed the crash in New York, Attorney General John Ashcroft turned his attention to some not-so-mysterious deaths on the opposite coast. Mr. Ashcroft ordered agents to enforce federal drug laws against Oregon doctors who prescribed lethal doses of painkillers to patients who wanted to kill themselves. (Doctor-assisted suicide may be legal in that state, but doctors' federal licenses to write prescriptions limit the use of drugs for healing and comfort, not killing.) That reversed a decision by former Attorney General Janet Reno, to ignore such violations of the prescription-drug laws, and threw into question the future of Oregon's assisted-suicide law. State officials immediately challenged the attorney general in court, and a judge temporarily blocked prosecutions. Democrats in New Jersey and Virginia wrested their governors' mansions from Republican control in the first statewide races since President Bush took office. And the Arizona Diamondbacks wrested dominance of major league baseball from the New York Yankees. Behind pitchers Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, the Diamondbacks won, four games to three, a World Series that set a record for ninth-inning comebacks. GOP leadership breaks up, Microsoft holds together
Capping a year full of political retirement announcements, House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) revealed on Dec. 12 that he'll step down from his powerful post next year. The retirement of the 18-year incumbent-a favorite of both fiscal and social conservatives nationwide-set off a scramble to replace him as the penultimate leader of the House. Zacarias Moussaoui, a 33-year-old French Moroccan, was indicted on Dec. 11 on conspiracy charges in the terrorist attacks exactly three months before. The so-called "20th hijacker" (19 were killed in the attacks) could face the death penalty when his trial begins in January. Of the approximately 600 foreign nationals held in the Sept. 11 investigation, Mr. Moussaoui was the first indicted. Microsoft appointed a team of lawyers to help the company comply with an agreement with the federal government that settled the mammoth antitrust lawsuit started under the Clinton administration. Company executives agreed to manufacture their popular Windows operating system in a way that allows customers to remove some portions of the system and promised to release some source code so competitors can write less buggy software. The agreement prevents a court-ordered breakup of the company and leaves Microsoft's desktop dominance intact, but a handful of states continued their legal pursuit of the software giant. The deal with the Feds effectively puts Microsoft in the legal driver's seat.

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