Forgotten stories in a year defined by just one day

Before Sept. 11, the tax cut, stem-cell research, even shark attacks were big news. How the context has changed.

George W. Bush was sworn in after winning the election - barely. Bill Clinton pardoned lots of people on his way out the door. A Navy spy plane ended up in China, and the US had a hard time getting it back. Timothy McVeigh was executed. The phrase "stem-cell research" figured in a culture war.

Do these seem like stories from another age? They aren't - and they are. All are from the past year. But all occurred before history drew the curtain of Sept. 11 across American life.

Rarely has a single day so altered the context of an entire year's events. To many in the US, anything that happened before terrorists struck seems somehow unimportant today. Everything after seems connected to it, part of the world's response.

That's not really true, of course. It's simply a phenomenon of comparison, plus media focus. Sept. 11 was epic, but that does not make the Democratic takeover of the Senate trivial. The war in Afghanistan has dominated news pages for months, but Enron's bankruptcy is no less important because it didn't appear above the page 1 fold.

The future is another country, and it is impossible for us to predict how it will rate 2001's events. Perspectives can change dramatically in only a few years. Consider that in early 1997, the Monitor ran several stories about the most important things that happened in the previous year. In the last story, in the section devoted to reader suggestions, near the bottom, below "the continued decline in world fisheries," came this: "the rise of the Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan."

Down, then up with Beijing

Remember China? At the beginning of the year, some in Washington thought it a likely candidate for our new best enemy. Beijing seemed increasingly willing to challenge US influence in East Asia. After a US Navy surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter on April 1, and made a forced landing on Chinese soil, relations became particularly tense. In the end, Beijing forced the US to cut the plane up and ship it back in a Soviet-built airlifter.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the new cold war. In June, the US and China agreed on the last items blocking China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Then came Sept. 11 - and Chinese statements of support. Washington's new war turned out to be neither cold nor centered on the Far East.

"It's interesting how China has dropped out of the cross hairs," says Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Relations could still sour. The Bush administration's Dec. 13 announcement that it plans to withdraw from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty may end up angering Beijing more than Moscow, for instance.

That's because China has a much smaller nuclear arsenal than Russia. Any effective US defense shield would have a proportionately greater effect on Chinese military power. Thus, in announcing US withdrawal from the treaty, Bush officials stressed that they wanted to talk to China about US defensive intentions in an effort to keep Beijing from feeling threatened.

By itself, the end of the ABM pact was a seminal event. Absent Sept. 11, it quite likely would be judged the most important US foreign-policy move of the year - perhaps even of the decade. It means not just the end of restraints on strategic defenses, but perhaps the end of arms control, or at least the end of detailed arsenal-limiting treaties.

ABM withdrawal is also of a piece with one of the most important aspects of the Bush administration's approach to the world - a move away from multilateralism. In recent months, news about the world rallying to the fight against terrorism has overshadowed the continued US resistance to other multilateral efforts such as the Kyoto treaty on limiting greenhouse gases, and the International Criminal Court.

What's interesting is that early predictions about the Bush team's unilateralism generating a united anti-US front in Russia and Europe have yet to come true. If anything, transatlantic relations are warmer now than they were in the final Clinton days.

"The Bush administration has 'gotten away' with all these changes.... Of course, there may yet be a price down the road," says Mr. Mead.

No mandate? No problem.

Or not. Who can tell? Policy prediction is a difficult business. It was only a few months ago - Inauguration Day, in fact - when the strained circumstances of Mr. Bush's rise to power were still a major issue. Could a president who had essentially finished in a dead heat with his opponent, in a statistical sense, govern?

For some, the question was Bush's legitimacy, but for many more, it was his potential effectiveness. The pundits' conventional wisdom was clear: As a chief executive who had lost the popular vote, Bush would be forced to govern from the center. His preelection agenda was out the door.

Whoops - never mind. That's not the way things turned out. From his first days in office, Bush pushed hard for his long-held top priorities. Unlike his protean predecessor, Bush focused on a few things, and then hammered. On a few things, it worked. His mammoth tax cut represented a huge change in fiscal direction. On others, well ... whatever happened to the expansion of government support of faith-based initiatives?

But win or lose, Bush was not was cautious.

"Whether you like his policies or not, you have to admit that he was not intimidated [by the circumstances of his election]," says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.

In Washington, life got much tougher for the president on May 24, when James Jeffords, formerly known as the independent Republican senator from Vermont, bolted from the GOP, and became an Independent with a capital "I". The Democrats regained control of the Senate and used it to push their own ideas, while reshaping some of the president's.

Thus the just-passed education bill reflected some priorities of both parties. Democrats got a big boost in federal spending. The GOP got national tests - though not as tough a testing regimen as it would have liked.

However, the most important change in domestic policy this year might have been general, as opposed to a piece of particular legislation. Fiscal restraint is gone with the wind. The word "lockbox" is no longer a feature of normal conversation. The tax cut, plus some domestic-spending increases, plus the costs of the anti-terror fight, have ensured that deficits will reappear soon - perhaps as early as this fiscal year.

Is that a problem? Well, running down Al Qaeda is a top national priority. But some say it's a shame that the surplus has disappeared before we really got to know it. In fact, at least one expert thinks the US is now worse off then it was before, fiscally speaking. That's because in the few brief years Washington was in the black, the political system did not really develop a plan to use its windfall to cushion future problems, according to Stanley Collender of the Federal Budget Consulting Group at Fleishman-Hillard in Washington.

"We've just squandered the opportunity to pay down some national debt and make a positive contribution to the economy," he says.

On other fronts

The biggest science story of the year, if measured by headline inches, was embryonic stem-cell research. It's an issue that fits all too well into the template of moral argument derived from America's struggle over abortion. What's worth more - embryos that might grow into people, or advances in medical research derived from stem cells whose harvesting destroys those embryos? Bush's decision in August to allow research only on existing lines of stem cells satisfied neither side.

But was that really the most important scientific story in the nation? Headline inches measure little more than an editor's interest. And science, in particular, is a field where big events can resist journalistic summary.

"Materials science has been revolutionized. New nanotechnology issues are huge. Brain research ... it's just running away," says David Murray of the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington nonprofit group that studies public coverage of science issues.

The biggest stories in many categories may be things only dimly reflected in the media today. In five years, Americans might look back on 2001 as the year the consolidation of media companies into a few behemoths - think of AOL's buyout of Time Warner - took off. Or it might be remembered as the year when the Netherlands became the first nation to legalize euthanasia.

Suggestions from Monitor staffers for important overlooked events included everything from continued humanitarian crises in Africa to former Boston Bruins player Ray Bourque's jump to the Colorado Avalanche, where he won his first Stanley Cup.

Michael Jordan came back, again, to light up basketball scoreboards. The Yankees lost the World Series on the field, but improbably won the nation's heart. Shark attacks kept swimmers out of East Coast waters.

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates, then lowered them again, then kept lowering them - all in an effort to restart the economy. Gasoline prices thinned wallets for much of the year, only to fall to bargain prices toward the end.

Then there was Gary Condit. His tawdry story used to seem important. That's less so, now, but still ... what happened to him, anyway?

What played second fiddle

1. Fuel prices soared early in the year, and this gas station in Madison, Wis., made its own commentary.

2. Americans enjoyed tax rebates, and some stores, like a Wal-Mart in Fayetteville, N.C., were eager to cash them.

3. President Bush and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met in the US last month as ties warmed between their countries.

4. Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, this time playing for the Washington Wizards.

5. Affirmative-action policies were taken up in several court cases, leading to a heated demonstration in Cincinnati.

To our readers

Got your own list of what happened that was important this year? Let us know. E-mail them to stories2001@csmonitor.com.

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