’05’s Big Five

The big story of the year happened last year, after every journalist in the world filed his biggest-story-of-the-year piece and went away for the holidays. That of course was the great tsunami. On this day one year ago the dimensions of the disaster had finally become clear. The tsunami is the story of 2005 not because it was shocking that natural disasters occur or that a quarter million people can die and many more be hurt in them—that information is well known to all adults. The great tsunami is the big story of 2005 because after it occurred the tired old heart of a tired old world responded with the energy and alacrity of the youthful and untired. Thousands went to help. We sent billions; we sent former presidents; we devoted air time and print. For a lot of people there may have been something reorienting in the drama: no matter what, we are all the same, and all together, fleeing the wave.

The second story, of course, is Hurricane Katrina. The same and different. Closer to home, not nearly as deadly in terms of numbers. Again it took days to understand the dimensions of the destruction, and again Americans stepped forward. But this time the political response, on the ground and in Washington, was not moving and rousing but inadequate and embarrassing. The fallout continues.

Third story: the death of Pope John Paul II and the rise of Benedict XVI. One of the longest pontificates in church history ends. Millions take to the streets and tell the Vatican to make him a saint. The Vatican is taken aback and elects Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who even 10 years ago was considered too old, too conservative, and too German to be pope. It is, still, the most amazing story of the year.

Fourth story: Iraq, which continued. From foes of the invasion, increased animus; from supporters, a determination matched by a certain privately expressed deflation. It is due not to fears the U.S. will leave under political pressure (President Bush has made clear to his country and the world that we will stay) or that we will be defeated on the ground (these insurgents will not beat this U.S. military) but that victory will not in the end prove helpful or even definable. That it was not an investment of five years or even 20 but of a century. That is where the doubt is: After all this blood and treasure, will it turn out to have made things better?

Fifth, the rise and fall and comeback of President Bush. He was triumphant in November 2004, seemed lost in the months afterward, made strategic mistakes (Social Security), had bad luck (Katrina), made bad judgments (Harriet Miers). A fight not with his base as much as with the thinkers and leaders of his party ensued. Issues that had simmered (spending, immigration) ignited.

But history moves quickly. His people hit reset; he announced a refocus. The economy is an almost unnoticed triumph. Christmas spending is up 10%. Iraq votes yet again, amid pictures of purple fingers. Mr. Bush’s numbers go up. He is dinged but not done. All will hinge on Iraq. History will say Bush was a dramatic and consequential president who broke through the wall of history and successfully reordered the most dangerous part of the world, or a dramatic and all-too-consequential president whose decisions yielded disaster. It’s like looking at Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and wondering, How is this going to go?

Are you a pessimist? Then you’re thinking Ecclesiastes: “Vanity, all is vanity.” An optimist? Think Lawrence of Arabia, at least in Robert Bolt’s screenplay: “Nothing is written.”

*   *   *

Those are five stories of a hard year. Let’s look into the crystal ball. In the absence of great movements—or the emotional and intellectual commitment great movements require—the 2006 American elections become what they usually are, a referendum on whether or not you like your local congressman. The result: a holding action on the part of the electorate. The Democratic Party continues as the dead man walking of American politics. It’s like a movie in which the spirit of a lively person enters the body of a dying person and revives it. They’re hoping Hillary can bring them alive, or Mark Warner, and they can jump out of bed and have adventures. The Republicans are not on their deathbed but they are in heavy therapy. What do we believe in? Why do we exist? What is our purpose? Must my life have meaning? Can’t I just enjoy it? The Democrats are worse than we are.
Patrick Fitzgerald’s work will be seen in retrospect as the great investigation that ended Washington’s long love affair with investigations. The nonfiction books of the year will be Rick Brookhiser’s “What the Founders Would Do” and Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong. Bill Safire, whose traditional end-of-the-year column I’m attempting to ape, should come back to us with a big book. What I’d like to see from him: “What I’ve Learned, What I Know.”

Speaking of apes, “King Kong” is no klassic and does not at the end of the day beat “Narnia.” Pope Benedict will begin to find his stride, and more quickly after he removes Vatican image handlers.

Hillary Clinton will soon face the base, seeking to relieve the pressure of growing leftist resentment of her non-antiwar stance. She wins big in New York, but watch her in Hollywood: Will her 2008 fundraising forays be as successful as her husband’s were? Or does big-money Hollywood have Clinton fatigue? And don’t they think Mark Warner reminds them of Warren Beatty, only serious and with a record?

Katie Couric goes to the “CBS Evening News” and gets a talk show. Judy Miller becomes a columnist and blogger. She’ll win a Pulitzer Prize, but not until 2016.