The U.S. presidential election and the earthquake that devastated Soviet Armenia, killing tens of thousands of people, were the top two news stories of 1988 in a year-end poll of Associated Press member newspaper editors and broadcasters.
It was a year in which U.S.-Soviet relations showed a warming trend, capped by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's announcement of a substantial, unilateral cut in Soviet troop strength. The start of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow and the Soviet leader's continuing overhaul of the Soviet system, amid nationalist unrest in some Soviet republics, also made big news.Ballots were returned by 106 Associated Press newspaper editors and 126 broadcasters who ranked the year's headline events, from No. 1 through No. 10. A first-place vote counted 10 points, a 10th-place vote one point.
Late-breaking events had required a revised ballot and second vote, making earlier ballots outdated.
Even so, the Dec. 21 crash of a Pan American Airways jumbojet on a flight from London to New York, which killed all 259 aboard and an estimated dozen on the ground, occurred too late to be included in the top-10 ranking.
The annual rankings are not conducted as a scientific poll but an informal survey, the collective view of people who deal with the news daily in a nation of diverse regional concerns.
- The national election, leading the editors' ballots, was a race characterized by what analysts called "negative" campaigning, in which prepared TV ads often spoke for the candidates - Vice President George Bush and his running mate, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, and the Democratic governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, and his running mate, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas.
Bush won 40 states and 426 electoral votes. Dukakis won 10 states and the District of Columbia, and 111 electoral votes. The popular vote was 54 percent to 46 percent in favor of Bush. The turnout was estimated at slightly more than 50 percent of the voting-age population, the lowest since 1924.
It was not a total rout for the Democrats. They gained a seat in the Senate, for a 55-45 majority, and picked up three seats in the House, to maintain control by 260-175. The Democrats also managed a gain of one governor and now hold 28 of the nation's 50 governorships.
- The Armenian earthquake - ranked second among 1988's news stories - occurred at 11:41 a.m. on Dec. 7 and, by seismic standards, was not an especially large shock. It registered 6.9 on the Richter scale as compared, for example, with Mexico City's 8.1 quake of 1985 and Alaska's 1964 quake of 8.5.
But the devastation wrought by the Armenian quake was staggering. At least 50,000 perished and 500,000 were left homeless. At year's end the ultimate number was still unknown, even as Mexico City's 10,000 deaths remains only a guess three years later. (The Alaska quake killed only 114.)
The Armenian quake leveled entire cities and towns. Leninakan, a city of 290,000, was 80 percent destroyed. Two other mid-size cities, Kirovakan and Stepanavan, suffered similarly. Spitak, a city of 16,000, was effectively wiped out. Nations east and west, including the United States, responded immediately with offers of help. For the first time since the lend-lease days of World War II, the Soviets accepted the U.S. offer.
Soviet authorities blamed the extent of the destruction partly on shoddy construction work during the pre-Gorbachev "Brezhnev era."
Nationalist zeal persisted amid the devastation. Some militant Armenians claimed that in resettling orphans outside Armenia the Soviets were trying to snatch them from their culture.
- The U.S. drought was the No. 3 story.
At a time when America's farmers were just beginning to recover from the economic crisis of the early 1980s, along came the worst drought in a half-century, the worst since the dark dry days of the Dust Bowl. So little rain fell on the Great Plains and elsewhere in the Midwest that even the mighty Mississippi River, in June, shrunk to the point where more than a thousand barges were left stranded.
Across the arid countryside the corn harvest fell by 34 percent from the previous year's bumper crop, soybeans by 21 percent, spring wheat by 54 percent.
Relief did not come until August - not from rain, which was too late in most areas, but from a $3.9 billion drought aid bill that helped farmers who harvested less than 65 percent of normal production. By fall, the Farmers Home Administration had declared 1,489 counties eligible for emergency disaster loans, including 13 entire states, more than one-fifth of the nation.
- A tragedy in the Persian Gulf was judged the No. 4 news event.
At 10:54 a.m. on July 3, the U.S. warship Vincennes, under assault by Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf, mistook a civilian airliner on a routine flight for an attacking Iranian fighter plane and shot it down. All 290 people aboard the Iran Air plane perished.
Capt. Will Rogers III of the Vincennes called his $1.2 billion vessel "the most sophisticated ship in the world, bar none," and a senior naval officer called Rogers,"the best of the best of the best."
A Navy board of inquiry found that Rogers' action was understandable in light of the information available. It said the "fog of war" and stress of combat may have contributed to the tragedy. But an international investigatory panel found the Navy culpable, saying its ships should have been monitoring such civilian air traffic.
- America's re-entry into space earned fifth place in the year-end poll.
Space shuttle launches had become routine until the Challenger explosion killed seven crew members in 1986. Consequently, when five astronauts boarded the shuttle Discovery in September, it was no ordinary mission. The future of the U.S. space program rested on its success.
On the morning of Sept. 29, Capt. Robert Crippen Crippen, the launch "czar," consulted with his 21 advisers, experts on all phases of the mission, including weather observers, who were nervous about high-altitude winds above Cape Canaveral and at emergency landing sites around the globe. At last Crippen gave the "go."
The result was splendid. Discovery roared off and the astronauts returned to Earth four days later after a remarkably smooth flight during which they deployed a communications satellite.
Two months later a second shuttle, Atlantis, took off on a secret Defense Department mission, another success, setting the stage for a planned seven-flight schedule in 1989.
- Developments in the Mideast ranked in sixth place in 1988.
After years of maneuverings and hesitations, Yasser Arafat finally made it clear enough to satisfy a skeptical United States: The Palestine Liberation Organization, which he heads, accepts the existence of Israel and renounces all forms of terrorism.
And so on Dec. 14, in a startling reversal of policy, President Reagan announced that the United States would open a "substantive dialogue" with the PLO. Israeli leaders expressed dismay and disappointment, even though U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz added that "the U.S. commitment to the security of Israel remains unflinching."
The U.S. opening to the PLO came, ironically, after it had refused Arafat entry to the United States to address the United Nations. The U.N. General Assembly thereupon moved temporarily to Geneva to hear Arafat call for negotiations that would include Israel and the PLO.
- The end of the Iran-Iraq War scored seventh in the voting. After eight years of slaughter in which well over a million people, and perhaps 2 million, were killed or wounded, in which 13-year-old boys died as volunteer sacrificial minesweepers, in which clouds of poison gas wiped out entire villages, in which hundreds of billions of dollars were squandered for revenge and martyrdom, the war between Iran and Iraq ended in August.
After the cease-fire Aug. 20, the devastated rivals began peace talks. Neither was a victor. The two countries need an estimated $110 billion to rebuild everything from their oil fields to their schools.
- The nation's environment, in its broadest sense, ranked eighth in the voting.
The health of the planet, its winds, oceans, the land itself, did not fare well in 1988.
The "greenhouse effect" - the development of a blanket of carbon dioxide allowing heat to accumulate in the atmosphere - was at least partly blamed for the drought and other climatic changes. The use of aerosol containers was pouring a gas into the air that was blamed for a hole over the Antarctic in the atmospheric shield against cancer-causing ultraviolet rays - a warning, some scientists said, of disaster to come.
Meanwhile, syringes and other refuse washed ashore on some of the nation's beaches, where the barefoot once waded with impunity. Beaches were closed along the northern Atlantic seaboard, and the public was outraged by the violation of summertime oceanside serenity.
- Gorbachev's Dec. 7 visit to the United Nations ranked ninth.
The Soviet leader startled the world body, along with U.S. planners and diplomats, by announcing that the Soviet Union would, unilaterally, reduce its armed forces by 500,000 troops, along with tanks and other equipment. News of the Armenian earthquake required Gorbachev to cut short his visit to New York, which had welcomed the Soviet leader warmly and enthusiastically.
- One of the nation's worst sieges of forest fires ranked as the No. 10 news story.
The Boise Interagency Fire Center, which keeps track of the nation's wildfires, said that through the exceptionally dry year more than 30,000 firefighters battled 72,000 blazes that charred more than 5 million acres in the United States, including 2.2 million acres in Alaska.
By mid-July, a dozen fires raged in the venerable Yellowstone National Park. Other fires blazed in six surrounding national forests.
When November snows finally smothered the Yellowstone flames, 706,278 acres, nearly half of the 2.2-million-acre "mother park," were black and dead, 29 buildings were destroyed, including 20 at the Old Faithful complex. More than $115 million had been spent in mostly futile firefighting efforts, and the economies of tourist towns in three states suffered.
The blazes called into dispute established wildfire management policy.
At year's end that argument still smoldered. But, fire or no fire, Old Faithful remained faithful to its ageless schedule, erupting every 75 minutes.
The second 10 stories were:
11. The Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow.
12. The TV evangelists: Jimmy Swaggart touched by scandal; Jim Bakker indicted on fraud charges.
13. AIDS keeps spreading; no breakthroughs.
14. Hurricane Gilbert ravages the Caribbean.
15. Nuclear armaments plants shut down.
16. Mega-buyouts and mergers on Wall Street.
17. Olympic Games, drug scandal in Seoul.
18. U.S. economy remains sturdy, unemployment low.
19. Changes in Soviet system, unrest in republics.
20. Rescue of ice-bound whales.
***** Here are the top 10 stories of 1988 as selected by Associated Press member editors and broadcasters in the United States. (Note: The voting ended before the Pan Am airliner crash in Scotland.)
1. Bush defeats Dukakis in presidential election.
2. Earthquake levels Armenian cities.
3. Drought parches Midwestern farms.
4. U.S. warship downs Iranian airliner.
5. America re-enters space.
6. Reagan will open PLO talks.
7. Iran and Iraq end eight-year war.
8. Nation's environment threatened.
9. Gorbachev announces Soviet troop reductions.
10. Forest fires scorch national parks.