A Year Like None Other

It usually takes decades to fit in all the tragicomedy of 2008.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The three great stories of 2008 were the financial meltdown, the turn-about in Iraq, and the Chicago Way. All of them conveyed a certain sense of the surreal — whether the vaporization of the nation’s 401(k)s in a few hours, or Harvard Law School graduate Barney Frank asking Harvard Law School graduate Franklin Rains of the soon-to-be bankrupt Fannie Mae whether he felt under-regulated, or Tony Rezko making a cameo appearance in almost every Illinois scandal of the last decade.

What happened in mid-September not only destroyed the classical concept of trust and fair-dealing, but the entire Wall Street premise that those with MBAs from Ivy League business schools, or years of work with the SEC, or long tenure with brokerage houses with 19th-century pedigrees know anything. In other words, goodbye to all those titles and business cards. We are now back to hometown insurance agents and the local tow-truck driver offering just as insightful stock tips.

Greed and excess gave way to panic, as the primordial emotions broke free from their thin veneer of culture. Without a blink, we went back to 1929 — the only difference being that the baby-boomer generation blames everyone but themselves, under oath and amid clicking cameras, rather than privately and quietly jumping out the window.

In the aftermath of the financial meltdown, 50 years’ worth of careful thinking and hard-won wisdom were erased, as the Reagan Revolution, the work of Milton Freidman, and the classical free-market ethos were suddenly Trotskyized. In their place, the government printed more money to cover its hourly check-writing. The only entertaining element of the tragedy was the sheer shamelessness of a Barney Frank and Chris Dodd — who both once peddled their wares to banks and Freddie/Fannie at Ground Zero of the meltdown — now with flashing eyes and sagging craws pontificating each evening about Wall Street greed and excess.

After Bernie Madoff (the “by the way, $50 billion is sorta gone” guy), Wall Street finance will have its chronology delineated by BM and AM. It calls to mind a group of five-year-olds scrambling when the song cuts out during a game of musical chairs, or those smudged mimeographed pyramid scheme chain-letters that we used to receive, or those bizarre e-mails from “Sir Reginald Oboke, esquire, a barrister representing a Nairobi Bank who wishes to deposit $1 billion in your name if you can please supply me with your necessary social security and banking routing numbers.”

Well over halfway through the month of December, only two Americans have been lost in combat operations in Iraq — about the daily body count in a major American city. What is incomprehensible is not just that Gen. David Petraeus turned around an entire theater — Americans from William Tecumseh Sherman to Matthew Ridgway had done just that amid media gloom and doom — but that his efforts when begun were so roundly demonized, and when nearly ending in success so roundly ignored.

We forget that the Democratic primary once hinged on who was to apologize the loudest for authorizing the war, that the Sen. Majority Leader in mediis rebus declared the war lost, that the New York Times once ran at a discounted rate the “General Betray Us” Moveon.org ad, that Sen. Clinton once derided the general’s testimony as requiring a “suspension of disbelief” (i.e. “you are lying”), and that President-Elect Obama once all but said the surge would make things worse — and when it began to work claimed that it hadn’t.

Quite suitably we end the war year with an Egyptian-based Iraqi journalist trying to hit the president of the United States with his two shoes — being canonized by the Arab Street and not-so-secretly appreciated by the American Left (far more interested in the Miranda rights of the assailant than the breach of security that allowed not one, but two projectiles to target their president). The irony was not just that, had he tried that with Saddam Hussein he would have been brush shredded in the basement, but that such a self-described crusading journalist would not even dare such theater in Mubarak’s authoritarian Egypt. It was more of the same old, same old from the blame ‘em Middle East: “We hate you for doing business with our oppressive dictators; and we also hate you for losing blood and treasure to liberate us from our oppressive dictators and fostering democracy, and we also just hate you since so many of you seem to want us to hate you.”

The year 2008 also reintroduced us to Bill Ayers, Hot Rod Blagojevich, Rahm Emanuel, Father Pfleger, Tony Rezko, the Right Rev. Wright and the rest of the Chicago Pals. What was so uncanny about them all was not just that they were proverbial spokes to Barack Obama’s hub, but that each revealed how the Chicago Way proved so interdisciplinary in nature.

Bill Ayers started out as a scion of the rich Chicago elite, did his “terror thing” so to speak, and then ran back home to Chicago for his sinecure, inheritance, and security blanket. He has ended up as the wrinkled, balding version of the narcissistic spoiled brat he started out as. How perfectly Chicagoan that old Mayor Daley once battled Ayers et al. in the Chicago streets (cf. that mug shot of the smug, slouching, saucy, and ambivalent-looking Ayers after his 1968 arrest), and young Mayor Daley now comes full circle to the defense of his sullied reputation.

Blago did not just sound crooked on tape. No, what astounded Americans was his apparent furor that anyone anywhere might in fact follow the law — how un-Chicagoan could that be? His only saving grace was that as Americans recoiled from his sinister musings, they suddenly cracked a laugh at least at his audacious quip, “The seat is a f—-ing valuable thing, you just don’t give it away for nothing.”

For most of 2008 we were lectured how suave tough guy Rahm Emanuel played winning hardball. Then in November we were told by the media how tough guy Rahm Emanuel would knock heads and bring dreamy Obama down to earth. And then in December we were suddenly told yet again that it made sense that tough guy Rahm Emanuel was horse-trading for hours with Hot Rod on Prosecutor Fitzgerald’s wiretaps.

Father Pfleger proved that only in Chicago could a Catholic priest sound just as creepy as the proverbial evangelical pompadoured preacher in a leisure suit.

What was strange about Tony Rezko — and unlike his counterparts in New Jersey and New York — was that he didn’t take a cut to get the container ships unloaded, the cranes in place, or the garbage picked up, but that everything that the anti-Midas Rezko touched wound up a failure. Never has someone taken so much from so many for so little.

When the hate-spouting venomous Rev. Wright was compared by now President-Elect Obama to his late “white grandmother” who had devoted her latter years to raising young Barack, we suspected something was terribly wrong with our prospective commander-in-chief’s judgment. That assessment was reaffirmed when Obama swore to us that the hate-mongering preacher in his various ridiculous costumes and rants-of-the-day was not the Rev. Wright he once knew — and proven thrice when Rev. Wright reiterated his racism in almost everything he has uttered in the year since.

This year turned out to be the Roaring 20s, the bleak 1930s, and the Sixties — all rolled into one.

©2009 Victor Davis Hanson

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