It was the year they held a presidential election and half the nation's voters decided to stay home.

It was the year rescuers decided to free a trio of battered, barnacle-encrusted gray whales trapped in the ice at the top of the world. It was the year an early decision to let Yellowstone burn altered the face of the showcase park for a century to come.It was the year Oprah decided to diet, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev decided he wanted to be president, Attorney General Edwin Meese III decided to resign, evangelist Jimmy Swaggart decided to confess his sins and Michael Spinks decided to challenge world heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

Some decisions worked; others didn't.

Soviets and Americans pulled together to free two surviving whales, last seen cruising toward warmer waters. Soviet President Andrei Gromyko bowed out, and Gorbachev took over. Oprah Winfrey, the TV host, lost 67 pounds.

In Yellowstone, however, officials realized too late they might have made the wrong decision. By the time firefighters arrived, unusually dry weather and high winds had fires ripping out of control, forcing evacuation of towns and causing an uproar among area residents.

Swaggart preached on but lost much of his audience after the Assemblies of God decided to defrock him. Spinks lasted for just 91 seconds and eight decisive blows.

The wisdom of other decisions remained to be seen.

Faced with the choice between Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, and frustrated by one of the most low-down, dirty presidential campaigns ever, an ambivalent electorate waffled and fidgeted and finally succumbed to overwhelming inertia.

"I've always loved election years," President Reagan said, but it seemed hardly anyone else did. Bush's 54-46 percent victory over his Democratic opponent was based on a 50 percent voter turnout, the lowest in 64 years.

It was Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, the silver-haired, smooth-talking senator from Texas, who provided the only memorable line from the three nationally televised debates.

"Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy," Bentsen told a flustered Quayle, after the 41-year-old senator had compared himself with the late Democratic president.

The Kennedy image haunted the campaign and the nation. The 25th anniversary of his assassination became a time to reflect on idealism lost and a world changed.

Nowhere was that change more apparent than in U.S.-Soviet relations.

Kennedy, on the campaign trail himself 28 years ago, shunned Nikita Khrushchev when he visited New York. But Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader since Khrushchev to taste the Big Apple, had a superpower lunch with Reagan and Bush on Dec. 7 and addressed the United Nations, with no Khrushchev-style shoe-thumping. Instead, he promised to trim 500,000 men and 10,000 tanks from the Soviet armed forces.

The visit ended abruptly when a devastating earthquake hit Soviet Armenia. The Soviet leader rushed home to learn that an estimated 60,000 had died and 500,000 were left homeless as whole cities crumbled under the quake's force.

Reagan paid his first visit to Moscow in June for a summit that failed to break new ground in arms control. The president hammered away on human rights issues, and Gorbachev later sent America living proof of his commitment to change.

Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, father of the Soviet dissident movement, was allowed his first trip outside the Soviet Union after years of agitation over Soviet human rights policies.

Americans vigorously agitated for their own causes. More than 5,000 people were arrested in anti-abortion protests that began in July in 32 cities and continued through the year. Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, turned 15 years old, intact.

Anthony McLeod Kennedy, confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by a unanimous Senate, inherited a pivotal vote on the abortion issue but gave no hint of his views.

Court dockets bulged with the celebrated cases of the once-powerful.

Former Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos and his wife, Imelda, were indicted on racketeering charges alleging they plundered their homeland of millions and defrauded U.S. banks. Harry and Leona Helmsley, the king and queen of New York real estate, pleaded innocent to dozens of tax evasion charges.

Republican Evan Mecham of Arizona became the first governor in a half-century to be impeached and removed from office, although he was acquitted on criminal charges of concealing a $350,000 campaign loan.

In a decision that stunned Israel, President Reagan authorized talks with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization for the first time in at least 13 years. "Our object is not a dialogue," Secretary of State George P. Shultz said. "Our object is peace."

Uneasy peace prevailed in the 8-year-old Iran-Iraq War after a United Nations-sponsored cease-fire began Aug. 20. Peace talks opened five days later; they were deadlocked within 24 hours. In Afghanistan, Soviet troops began a withdrawal in 1988, but the guerrilla war raged on.

As winter turned to spring, the fickle weather that had delayed ski and sled events in Calgary became devastating drought across America, baking the nation's farmland and turning the mighty Mississippi into a muddy mess impassable for weeks.