Not too many people will be sorry to see 2009 hit the exits. The year began in economic fear and went downhill from there, into a crazy mix of grumpy paranoia, Congressional cave-ins, ousted bankers, celeb deaths and a hiking governor. To this observer, the three most newsworthy events or trends were the long, hard fight over healthcare reform; the American right's ongoing, collective nervous breakdown; and the startling rise in public craziness. Here is a brief look at highlights of things we covered in this column.
Economic woes: Wachovia is toast, Bank of America had to be bailed out, the local economy tanked, home foreclosures skyrocketed and area unemployment hit 12 percent in October. Charities have been swamped, homelessness rose sharply, and lives teetered. Things got so bad that a new Wal-Mart was actually seen as a potential boon. In October, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis resigned, marking an end to Charlotte's long love affair with bankers. His reign at BofA, and the risky policies he allowed to flourish there, brought him and, more importantly, the city, to a new low.
Does anyone know how to govern anymore?: We recently ran a lengthy look at the near-dysfunction of the school board, county commission, and city council. Luckily, there's hope for improvement. New faces, a new sense of urgency, and a new, energetic mayor, Anthony Foxx, may be able to better focus the city's resources on its real problems; the county commission is the most functional of the three bodies, but the members remain tone-deaf to public displeasure with County Manager Harry Jones; and it's too soon to tell whether the new school board will be more efficient than the previous nine-ring circus.
Snazzy new arts zone: The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, and the Knight Theater, opened on South Tryon, providing new, needed venues and innovative architecture that drew wows from the public. On Jan. 2, the eye-catching Bechtler Museum of Modern Art opens, to be followed by the Mint's major expansion next October.
Worst president ever leaves, hopeful guy starts: The year began with the nation reeling from the near-collapse of the world economy, and the unimaginably huge bailout of banks and automakers. Isn't it funny how we all assumed the banks' use of the bailout money would be closely supervised? Yeah, the year was full of such laughs. At least the Bush gang is gone, although Obama's record, so far, is less than progressives had hoped for.
Grumpy, Dopey and Doc have tea: Groups of disruptive protesters, largely organized by pro-insurance interests, shouted down attempts at real debate during Congress members' health care town hall meetings. Such outlandish claims and screaming hadn't been heard since the last WWE championship bout. "Tea Parties" were organized around the country, including in Charlotte, to protest government spending, health care reform, and a grab bag of other right-wing concerns and conspiracy theories.
Health care reform falters: As of our deadline, and after months of tortuous dealings in Congress, meaningful health care reform that would cover all Americans and lessen the influence of insurance companies, appears nearly dead in the water. In a lousy year, this was perhaps the biggest disappointment of all.
Obama expands Afghanistan war: President Nobel Peace Prize topped off the gradual alienation of his liberal "base" by ordering 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan -- aka The Graveyard of Empires. His reasoning was self-deluding and full of more twisty knots than a Navy training class.
Crazy shit galore: The steady rise in craziness in American public life threatened to overwhelm normal dialogue in 2009. Here's just a sample:
• FoxNews' Glenn Beck became a household name via his weepy, teeth-gnashing, clearly unbalanced performances and his over-the-top anti-Obama rhetoric (socialism, communism, fascism, hates white people, devours his young, whatever).
• Rep. Michele Bachmann (Obama would "send our kids to re-education camps") and former Alaska governor Sarah "Death Panels" Palin proved that you don't have to know what you're talking about to gain a national following.
• One of the stars of 2009's national craziness was South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who made "hiking the Appalachian Trail" a national catchphrase, found his soulmate, and wrecked his marriage, all in one long weekend.
• In other crazy Carolina politician news, Rep. Sue "My coffeemaker made me do it" Myrick took time off from deporting Latinos to write a preface for a book claiming that the most mainstream Muslim organization in Washington is actually a terrorist front. And, of course, Rep. Virginia Foxx was an ongoing Goofball Show, calling Matthew Shepard's death "a hoax," and claiming that health care reform is "more dangerous than any terrorist" and would result in old people being "put to death by their government." Is it any wonder we're glad 2010 is almost here?