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COUNTING DOWN 2004
RUMMAGING THROUGH THE YEAR'S EVENTS YIELDS WRECKAGE AND A FEW REWARDS

What is there to say about 2004? Good riddance seems harsh, if not entirely unfair.

From the slanders of the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth to the bestiality of Abu Ghraib to the threatened depredations of the "red budget," it is easy to perceive 2004 as utterly lacking in socially redeeming value, except perhaps as proof that a yearlong migraine is survivable. But, as Richard Nixon once observed, albeit in a radically different context, that would be wrong. Whatever disappointments 2004 served up, the year was not without its virtues.

Take conservatives. For them, this was the year of the young century, and not for anything so piddling as a tax cut, or as routine as the re-election of a favored president. This was the year they achieved the two Impossible Dreams of American conservatism, objectives that years of frustration had failed to deliver: They rid themselves of Dan Rather and Howard Stern.

The CBS anchorman announced he will retire in early 2005 (though he will continue to report) while the radio filthmeister pledged his troth to the brave new world of satellite radio (where he will talk even dirtier). Exactly what this will do for conservatives remains unclear, but they have been celebrating, and who are we to disagree? If it's good, it's good.

Liberals have to look a little harder to find their cheer, having lost the presidency, the Congress and, some would say, their minds. But there is this: The Supreme Court refused this fall to take up the matter of gay marriage. Not much, perhaps, but consider the consequences. "Gay marriage" will soon lead to "gay divorce" and from there, the revival of an old Broadway musical is all but inevitable. Liberals love the theater.

Like all years, 2004 was marked by profound gains and losses. Even Ronald Reagan's political adversaries found themselves moved by the death of the aged ex-president, who had wandered for years in the ever-darkening wilderness of Alzheimer's disease. The outpouring of affection, for him and for Nancy, was heartwarming and thoroughly American.

The outpouring of affection for Yasser Arafat, meanwhile, was simultaneously understandable and depressing. The Palestinian leader's only achievement was to bat away every prospect of peace with Israel while misleading his poorly educated followers into believing they could have the impossible. And still, they suffer.

The big gain in Buffalo remains a latent one, but the hopes vested in the recently announced plans for a Bass Pro Outdoor World store are both real and reasonable. Together with plans for the outer harbor, it is possible -- not certain, but possible -- that long-neglected sections of the city will look vastly different in a few years. Here's to that.

Then again, some things, apparently immutable, did not change. Again. Buffalo is still broke. The new Peace Bridge is still not built -- not even designed, for that matter. All the state incumbents who ran for re-election in Western New York won in a walk, even though Albany is the Typhoid Mary of state governments.

Speaking of elections, Buffalo hosted a congressional campaign that redefined the word vulgar. The clash between Assemblyman Brian Higgins and Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples drew the salivating interest of the national Democratic and Republican parties, subjecting Western New York voters, and the odd Canadian, to some of the most poisonous campaigning this side of Ukraine.

Here's something that did change: President Bush's cabinet. With his re-election, a great scythe ran through his administration, ultimately taking out nine of his 15 cabinet members. Critics worry that the president has now surrounded himself with sycophants who will not tell him when he is wrong, but they're missing the big picture. Even with contrary voices Bush took the country into a war his own evidence didn't support. So look on the bright side. How much worse can it get?

But let's not go there. 2005 is at our doorsteps. It will have its own challenges and opportunities; its own pains and pleasures. So we'll just bid farewell to the suspicious year gone by and wade eagerly into the new one, ready to make the best of whatever it may bring.

See you then.

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