Sunday, December 26, 1999
A fitting finale to the century
BY PHIL FISHER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
So, 20th Century, is this your final answer?
With 99 years of practice, was 1999 the best you could do for an exit? If we side with the purists and say you have another year left in you, will you com e up with something better?
Maybe it was appropriate, a large era brought home. A century of blood on the battlefields ends in a year of blood in the hallways; an era of amazing scientific advances ends in dot-com mania and Y2K jitters. A century of communications revolutions left us all better connected than ever, each sitting alone in front of our glowing screens.
In 1999, death seemed to come in bunches. In schools, in offices, in a church, on airplanes, in hurricanes, floods, fires and earthquakes, and, as always, in wars, life seemed all too fragile, and killing all too casual.
Though violent crime was down in the streets and the schools, a series of startling, terrible acts made it seem as if a kind of infectious madness was loose in the land, one that could strike anywhere without warning.
And yet there were shining moments and scientific advances, triumphs of the intellect and triumphs of the spirit. And, of course, there was the soaring economy.
But with 1999, the 20th century went out with a bang. In fact, far too many bangs.
ACQUITTED: History likely will recall the trial and acquittal of Bill Clinton as the nation's biggest story of the year.
A tawdry, depressing, infuriating scandal of exploitive sex, lies and coverup reached its anticlimax on the Senate floor. Mr. Clinton's impeachment by the House in 1998 led to a trial in the Senate, with case managers on both sides questioning witnesses and making speeches. The two principal players, Mr. Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, stayed away.
The Senate voted 50-50 on an obstruction of justice count, 55-45 against conviction on a perjury county, both far short of the 67 needed for conviction. When it was over, most Americans just seemed to want to wash their hands and forget about it.
No such luck. Linda Tripp may go on trial, Monica Lewinsky is hawking handbags and the president's reputation, like that blue dress, is forever stained.
THE CHILLING HOURS: The most frightening day of the year riveted America's attention on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. On April 20, two teen-aged boys, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, clad in black trenchcoats and loaded up with guns and bombs, stalked through the halls and rooms, shooting students and teachers as if they were monsters from ''Doom.''
They killed 12 students, one teacher and then themselves, leaving behind shattered lives and families, an embittered community and a stunned nation. They also left a Web site and frightening videotaped messages that showed their anger, their desire for attention and their careful planning.
Most of all they left behind mysteries: Why didn't someone see what was coming? Were the boys as persecuted by their peers as they said? How did they accumulate so many weapons? Why didn't police move in faster? But most of all, what may forever be unknown, how did the hearts of two young boys become so poisoned by hatred, hopelessness and evil?
MORE MASSACRES: School was not the only place of explosive violence in 1999.
A series of shootings made offices seem like places of danger. An investor killed nine and wounded 13 in two day-trading offices in Atlanta, then killed himself. In Honolulu, a copier repairman killed seven Xerox co-workers. In Seattle, a gunman walked into a boat shop, killed two employees and wounded two others. He walked away and was never caught.
And other places: In Fort Worth, Texas, a man walked into a Baptist church filled with young people during a Christian music concert and killed seven and wounded seven, then killed himself. In Los Angeles, a white supremacist shot up a Los Angeles Jewish community center, wounding five people, including three children, then killed a Filipino postal worker. In Salt Lake City, a man opened fire in a Mormon library, killing two before police shot him to death.
THE SON GOES DOWN: For those who remember his father's presidency, John F. Kennedy Jr. will be remembered as the adorable boy playing under Daddy's desk, and the tragic one saluting his father's casket. He grew up, friends said, with a sense of irony about who he was. He started George, a slick magazine about politics, and he might some day have run for office.
But on July 16, Mr. Kennedy, a new pilot, died when his plane crashed off Martha's Vineyard with his wife and her sister aboard. The media coverage was excessive, as it always has been with the Kennedys, but America, as it has before, shared a sense of loss with a family that has known loss often. Mr. Kennedy left behind, as his father did, that saddest of legacies: unfulfilled promise.
MYSTERY IN THE AIR: When EgyptAir Flight 990 crashed off the Massachusetts coast Oct. 31, it killed 217 aboard and gave birth to one of the strangest puzzles in aviation history. The plane's bizarre motions, lack of apparent mechanical problem and cockpit conversation hinted frighteningly at a deliberate act by a co-pilot. But that seemed impossible to reconcile with the portrait that emerged of an untroubled man looking forward to a comfortable retirement with a beloved family. The puzzle remains unsolved.
EARTH, WIND, WATER AND FIRE: The Earth and its elements created their own havoc. Two earthquakes struck Turkey, and one struck Greece. Thousands died and many more were left homeless, but two old enemies helped each other out in a crisis. The ground shook, too, in Colombia and Taiwan.
Wind wreaked lasting devastation. Hurricane Floyd came up the East Coast, dumping 20 inches of rain on North Carolina, flooding vast areas and leaving many homeless. Crops were destroyed, livestock drowned, coffins were washed out of the ground. Before the water could recede, Hurricane Irene added another foot of water. Recovery will take a long time.
A cyclone on the east coast of India took 10,000 lives and left 2.5 million homeless. Flooding in Venezuela caused mountain mudslides that killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.
A blaze in Europe's Mont Blanc tunnel killed 45. And America mourned with its firefighters after six died Dec. 3 in an abandoned warehouse in Worcester, Mass.
WAR . . . A century of warfare of unprecedented scope and brutality ended with wars that were small, but nonetheless brutal.
When the cruelty of Yugoslavia's Serbian rulers toward ethnic Albanians in Kosovo became too much for the West to stomach, NATO began a 78-day bombing campaign. President Slobodan Milosevic finally yielded, removing Serbian troops and allowing a NATO peacekeeping force. The peace was tense, and there was no noticeable decrease in hatred.
Russian forces, bloodied in Chechnya in 1994-96, returned in September after a series of bombings across Russia, blamed on Islamic separatists, killed 300 people. This time they brought a heavy-firepower strategy to avoid losses on the ground. Chechnya's capital, Grozny, has been blasted, but hasn't yielded.
India and Pakistan, now competing nuclear powers, skirmished in Kashmir. East Timor erupted in violence after a vote for independence from Indonesia. And an old brutality came to light, with revelation of a massacre of civilians by U.S. troops at No Gun Ri in the early days of the Korean War.
. . . AND PEACE: Yet there were advances in the battle for peace and freedom, as well. In Northern Ireland, Protestants and Catholics sat down together in the first power-sharing government. Nigeria had a civilian government and Indonesia had a free election.
Israel replaced hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Ehud Barak. Peace talks continued fitfully with Palestinians, and began tentatively with Syria.
The East is ready: The United States had tense relations with China, probably the next century's emerging economic and military superpower.
America protested Chinese suppression of dissidents; China protested American bombing of its embassy in Belgrade. America accused the Chinese of nuclear spying; China tested long-range missiles and prepared for a manned space flight. China recovered Macau and made noises about recovering Taiwan. But both nations agreed on terms for China to join the World Trade Organization.
THE RACE IS ON: The campaign for the presidency, which nowadays ebbs but never ends, got into full gear in 1999.
The powers in both parties tried to rally around their leading candidates early, anointing George W. Bush and Al Gore to avoid internal warfare and concentrate on the election.
Instead we have Bill Bradley and John McCain running even or ahead in New Hampshire polls, though still trailing nationally and in the all-important money column. Dan Quayle and Elizabeth Dole couldn't compete, but Steve Forbes and Newport native Gary Bauer hung in there. With the front-loading of primaries, the nominations likely will be decided by March.
And how strange is this? It's Pat Buchanan vs. Donald Trump in the Reform Party, with Jesse Ventura as potential kingmaker. At least Warren Beatty's run now seems like a mere fling, as we should have expected.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton is definitely but not yet officially running for senator from New York. Her apparent opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is also all-but-officially in the race, but at least he already lives there.
FLASHBACKS: At the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, union activists, environmentalists and anarchists demonstrated in scenes that looked like anti-war protests of the '60s. At Woodstock III, memories of peace, love and music were replaced with arson, rape and looting. And Star Wars returned, with some of the magic but also some notes that were very Jar-Jarring.
To the stars, through difficulty: NASA was 0-for-2 on the Mars front this year. Mars Climate Observer apparently burned up in September as it was about to go into orbit in September, a failure caused in part by mixing English and metric measurements in the programming. Mars Polar Lander failed to make contact in December after it should have landed; explanations are just guesswork.
Maybe this shows that sometimes rocket scientists are no rocket scientists, or maybe it's aliens shooting down our spacecraft (hey, some folks really believe that). More likely all it proves is that space exploration is hard, and failure is part of the deal.
Meanwhile, astronomers made a rush of finds of planets around other stars. The cosmic meaning: The more common planets are, the better the odds that there's life out there.
SCIENCE MARCHES ON, AND BACK: Scientists mapped one entire human chromosome and were on their way to roughing out the entire human genetic pattern.
Research into embryonic stem cells, from which all human parts grow, could lead to producing needed organs or tissues. But not without ethical debates over the use of cells from fetuses or embryos.
But scientists lost some ground in the schools to creationists. The Kansas State Board of Education made evolution an optional subject for local schools. Kentucky backed away from the word, replacing it with ''change over time'' in the state's standards. In Northern Kentucky, the group Answers in Genesis is planning a creationism museum in Florence.
BIGGER BUSINESS: The 20th could be called the Century of the Corporation, and in 1999 business was bigger, faster and more confident than ever. It was a year of megamergers, soaring stock prices and dot-com mania.
The Dow passed 10,000, then 11,000, with no end in sight.
''Mega'' was almost too small to describe some of the mergers. In communications, everyone was looking for a dance partner for the new millennium: MCI WorldCom and Sprint; SBC and Ameritech; Vodafone and Air Touch and Mannesmann; AT&T and TCI. In Big Oil, Exxon and Mobil were reunited. In the Tristate, it was AK Steel and Armco, Kroger and Fred Meyer, Delta and Comair.
In 1999, the Internet exploded as a place to do real business. From on-line retailers like amazon.com, to auction sites like eBay, to brick-and-mortar businesses (and who needed that phrase five years ago) getting on line in a big way, corporations and consumers found point-and-click-and-wait-for-delivery a powerful way to buy and sell.
Internet firms soared on the market, though some had yet to earn a profit.
For the public, the roaring economy meant plenty of jobs available. Workers with computer expertise were in heavy demand and commanded premium wages. At the bottom end, low-wage jobs were hard to fill and fast-food joints used their signs to tempt potential employees, not potential eaters.
DEPARTURES: As in every year, the world lost some of the people who made it interesting. Among them: former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the controversial Roe vs. Wade abortion decision. Peacemaking kings Hussein of Jordan and Hassan of Morocco. John Ehrlichman, the finest public servant Richard Nixon ever knew. Mel Torme, the Velvet Fog. Stanley Kubrick, who directed 2001 and Dr. Strangelove and had just finished Eyes Wide Shut. DeForest Kelly, a country doctor on Star Trek. Joseph Heller, who caught the world's irony in Catch-22. Pete Conrad, who, with a joyful ''Whoopee!'' became the third man to walk on the moon, and added, ''That may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.''
WHY-OH-Y2K: The turn of the millennium brought fears of computer disasters, apocalypse and terrorism. Some headed for the hills, or stocked up on food, fuel and cash. Big celebration plans seemed dampened by the Y2K jitters (or maybe by the exorbitant price tags).
The millennial scaremongers may be disappointed if Y2K is only an annoyance and civilization survives, though they'd have a point if they claim their scare tactics got others mobilized to fix the problem. But they're gonna have some answering to do if they spoiled all our parties for nothing.
TRIUMPH IN FLIGHT: It was an accomplishment that had eluded many adventurers: to fly around the world in a balloon without stopping or refueling.
Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, 41, and British pilot Brian Jones, 51, finally succeeded in March, lifting off from the Swiss Alps in the Breitling Orbiter 3, floating 25,362 miles and landing 21 days later in the Egyptian desert.
''The definition of adventure is to accept the uncertainty, accept the anxiety, accept the doubts, prepare as well as we could, and jump,'' Dr. Piccard said. ''It is a metaphor for life.''
And, perhaps, a metaphor for 1999. Maybe, after all, there really was something redeeming about the century's finale.
'99 Year in Review: Recalling the century's last gasp
'99 Sports: Color the year Red
'99 Local News: Prosperous year punctuated by hard times
'99 Business: Consumers hang on as economy and technology take rocket ride
'99 Nation/World: A fitting finale to the century
'99 Films: Embarrassment of riches
'99 Pop music: Cincy back on the charts
'99 Television: A million reasons to watch
'99 Classical music: Life imitates opera
'99 Dance: Comings and goings
'99 Theater: A year to remember
'99 Visual art: All eyes on Vontz Center