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Illustrations, Gary Brookins and Chris Cassett

Looking back on 2004, we have to conclude that it could have been worse.

"HOW??" you ask, spitting out your coffee.

Well, OK, a giant asteroid could have smashed into the Earth and destroyed all human life except Paris Hilton and William Hung. Or Florida could have been hit by 20 hurricanes, instead of just 17.

Or the Yankees could have won the World Series.

But no question, 2004 was bad. Consider:

• We somehow managed to hold a presidential election campaign that for several months was devoted almost entirely to the burning issue of: Vietnam.

• Our Iraq policy, despite being discussed, debated and agreed upon right up to the very highest levels of the White House, did not always seem to be wildly popular over there in Iraq.

• Osama bin Laden remained at large for yet another year (although we did manage, at long last, to put Martha Stewart behind bars).

• The federal budget deficit continued to worsen, despite the concerted effort of virtually every elected official in Washington — Republican or Democrat — to spend more money.

• As a nation, we managed somehow to get even fatter, despite the fact that anti-carbohydrate mania worsened to the point where the average American would rather shoot heroin than eat a bagel.

• The "reality"-show cancer continued to metastasize, so that you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing either Donald Trump or a cavalcade of dimwits emoting dramatically about eating bugs, losing weight, marrying a millionaire or remodeling a bathroom.

• Perhaps most alarming of all, Cher yet again extended her "farewell" tour, which began during the Jimmy Carter administration and is now expected to continue until the sun goes out.

So all things considered, we're happy to be entering a new year, which according to our calculations will be 2005 (although the exit polls are predicting it will be 1997). But before we move on, let's swallow our anti-nausea medication and take one last look back at 2004, which began, as so many years seem to, with . . .


. . . a month that opens with all the magic, excitement and glamour conjured up by the words "Iowa caucuses." All the political experts — having gauged the mood of the state by dining with each other at essentially three Des Moines restaurants — agree that the Democratic nomination has already been locked up by feisty yet irritable genius Vermont governor Howard Dean, thanks to his two unbeatable weapons: (1) the Internet, and (2) college students wearing orange hats.

But it turns out that the Iowa voters, many of whom apparently do not eat at the right restaurants, are out of the loop regarding the Dean strategic brilliance. Instead they vote for John "I Served In Vietnam" Kerry, who served in Vietnam and also has many policies, although nobody, including him, seems to know for sure exactly what they are. Dean, reacting to his Iowa loss, gives an emotional concession speech that ends with him making a sound like a hog being castrated with a fondue fork. Incredibly, this fails to improve his poll standings.

Meanwhile the Bush administration, increasingly disturbed by the bad news from Iraq, cancels the White House's lone remaining newspaper subscription (Baseball Digest).

But the news is much better from Mars, where yet another spunky li'l NASA robot vehicle lands and begins transmitting back photographs of rocks that appear virtually identical to the rock photos beamed back by all the other spunky li'l NASA robots, thus confirming suspicions that the universe has a LOT of rocks in it. In other outer-space news, Michael Jackson, clearly concerned about his trial on charges of child molestation, dances on the roof of an SUV.

In lifestyle news, the hot trend is "metrosexuals" — young males who are not gay but are seriously into grooming and dressing well. There are only eight documented cases of males like this, all living in two Manhattan blocks, but they are featured in an estimated 17,000 newspaper and magazine articles over the course of about a week, after which this trend, like a minor character vaporized by aliens in a "Star Trek" episode, disappears and is never heard from again.

In sports, Pete Rose publishes a book in which he at last confesses to an allegation that dogged him throughout his baseball career: He's a jerk.

Speaking of shocking revelations, in . . .


. . . the nation — already troubled by bad news from Iraq, coupled with a resurgence in terrorism and a slow economic recovery — is traumatized by something that leaves a deep and lasting scar on the fragile national psyche: Janet Jackson's right nipple, which is revealed for a full three ten-thousandths of a second during the Super Bowl halftime show. This event is so traumatic that the two teams are unable to complete the game, with many players simply lying on the field in the fetal position, whimpering. It is a moment reminiscent of the JFK assassination, in that virtually all Americans can remember exactly where they were when it happened.

"I was on the sofa," they say. Or: "I was in the bathroom and missed the traumatic moment, but fortunately we have TiVo."

As the nation reels in shock, the networks ban all programs that feature any kind of nudity, including unclothed fish. Congress also swiftly swings into action: Democrats blame the Bush administration, noting that the nipple was revealed on Bush's watch; while Republicans point out that, during all eight years of the Clinton administration, Janet Jackson clearly possessed nipples, and Bill Clinton was almost certainly aware of this.

Bush himself suggests the possibility that the nipples could have originated in Iraq. John Kerry notes that there were nipples in Vietnam.

Elsewhere in politics, feisty Internet genius Howard Dean drops out of the Democratic race after losing 17 consecutive primaries, despite leading in every single exit poll. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader announces that he will again run for president, a decision that is hailed unanimously by Nader's support base, which consists of Ralph and his friend Wendell the talking space turtle.

In entertainment news, the feel-good hit of the winter is Mel Gibson's wacky film romp "The Passion of the Christ," although critics of product placement object to the scene where Pontius Pilate can be seen holding a Diet Sprite.

On the cultural front, the mayor of San Francisco attempts to legalize same-sex marriage, which outrages those who believe that marriage is a sacred institution that should be entered into only by heterosexual people, such as Britney Spears and Mike Tyson.

Speaking of fighters, in . . .


. . . John Kerry sews up the Democratic nomination with primary victories in California, Florida, Illinois, Canada, France, Germany and Sweden. Kerry's closest rival, John Edwards, drops out of the race, but Dennis Kucinich stays in, saying that he intends to keep his idealistic grass-roots campaign going until either all U.S. troops leave Iraq, or Dennis finds a girlfriend.

In other political news, Russian president Vladimir Putin easily wins re-election, despite exit polls indicating the winner was Howard Dean.

There is finally some positive news from Iraq, where negotiators reach agreement on an interim constitution, which guarantees that, for the first time ever, Iraq will be governed by a duly elected council of nervous men in armored cars going 80 mph.

In domestic news, U.S. gasoline prices reach record levels when, in what economists describe as a freak coincidence, two drivers attempt to refuel their Humvees on the same day.

On the legal front, a federal jury convicts Martha Stewart on four counts of needing to be taken down a peg. In what many legal experts call an unduly harsh punishment, a federal judge sentences Stewart to be the topic of 17 consecutive weeks of Jay Leno jokes.

Speaking of punishments, in . . .


. . . the Federal Communications Commission levies a $495,000 fine against Clear Channel Communications for a 2003 incident in which Howard Stern, on his nationally-broadcast radio show, exposed his right nipple.

But the big entertainment news comes at the end of the two-hour season finale of the mega-hit reality show "The Apprentice," when Donald Trump, in the most-anticipated event of the year — and quite possibly all of human history — fires that one guy, whatshisname, and keeps that other guy. You remember. It was HUGE.

Meanwhile, in another blow to the U.S.-led coalition effort in Iraq, Spain withdraws its troop, Sgt. Juan Hernandez. As violence in Iraq escalates, critics of the Bush administration charge that there are not enough U.S. soldiers over there. Administration officials heatedly deny this, arguing that the real problem is that there are too many Iraqis over there. In the words of one high-level official (who is not identified in press reports because of the difficulties involved in spelling "Condoleezza") the administration "may have to relocate the Iraqis to a safer area, such as Ecuador." John Kerry calls this "a ridiculous idea," adding, "I wholeheartedly endorse it."

In economic news, the price of a gallon of gasoline at the pump reaches $236.97, prompting widespread concern that there is something wrong with this particular pump. Congress vows to hold hearings.

Speaking of things gone wrong . . .


. . . world outrage grew in reaction to photos taken inside Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, showing U.S. soldiers repeatedly forcing prisoners to look at the video of Janet Jackson's right nipple. As human-rights organizations voice outrage, President Bush vows to "punish whoever is responsible for this, no matter who it is, unless of course it is Donald Rumsfeld." Congress vows to hear holdings.

The nation's mood does not improve when the Department of Making Everybody in the Homeland Nervous raises the Official National Terror Index Level to "Yikes!" based on having received credible information indicating that al-Qaida terrorist cells are, quote, "up to something" and "could be in your attic right now."

John Kerry, looking to improve his image with Red State voters, shoots a duck.

On the health front, medical researchers announce that if you feed one aspirin per day to laboratory rats, eventually you are going to get bit.

In sports, popular spunky horse "Smarty Jones" wins the Kentucky Derby, confounding exit pollsters who had unanimously picked Seabiscuit. Congress vows to call its bookie.

The big entertainment news in May is the much-anticipated final episode of "Friends," in which Joey, Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Monica and Phoebe suddenly realize that that they are, like, 53 years old.

Speaking of final episodes, in . . .


. . . former President Ronald Reagan dies and embarks on a weeklong national tour. Also hitting the road for the last time is Ray Charles.

Another former President, Bill Clinton, travels around the nation bringing comfort to large crowds of Americans who injured themselves attempting to lift Clinton's 1,000-page memoir, titled "Some Day I Might Read This Myself."

The news from Iraq continues to worsen as the interim governing council, in a move that alarms the Bush administration, chooses, by unanimous vote, its new acting president: Al Gore. He immediately demands a recount.

In a related development, CIA Director George Tenet — the man who advised President Bush that the case for proving there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk" — resigns to accept a job advising the New York Yankees.

President Bush meets with the pope and, in impromptu remarks afterward, describes him as "a great American." John Kerry, campaigning in Michigan, strangles a deer.

On the economic front, there is good news and bad news. The good news is, the U.S. economy has generated 250,000 new jobs. The bad news is that 80 percent of these openings are for cable TV legal experts needed to speculate endlessly about Scott Peterson.

Speaking of jobseekers, in . . .


. . . John Kerry is formally nominated at the Democratic convention in Boston and, in his acceptance speech, tells the wildly cheering delegates that, if he is elected president, his highest priority will be "to develop facial expressions." Also well-received at the convention is Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz-Ketchup Kerry, who gives a moving account of being an immigrant in America with little more than hopes, dreams, a personal staff, a large fortune and a Gulfstream jet. Vice-presidential nominee John Edwards also makes a well-received speech, after which he is never heard from again.

In Washington, President Bush, reacting to news of a projected sharp increase in the federal budget deficit, vows to find out if this is a good thing or a bad thing, or what.

On the terrorism front, the federal commission charged with investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, having spent more than a year questioning hundreds of witnesses and reviewing thousands of pages of classified documents, concludes that the attacks were "very bad" and "better not happen again." Congress vows to hold hearings.

Meanwhile, in another blow to the U.S.-led effort in Iraq, Uruguay announces that it intends to pull its troops out of the coalition. Informed that it has no troops in the coalition, Uruguay asks if it can borrow some.

In Baghdad, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein appears in a courtroom to hear the charges against him, which include torture, murder, genocide and more than 175,000 zoning violations. Hussein declares that he is innocent and offers to take a urine test. The judge rules that further proceedings will be postponed "until the Scott Peterson trial is over."

The big movie hit of the summer is "Fahrenheit 9/11," a shocking documentary that shows how Bush administration policies were directly responsible for making Michael Moore more than one hundred million dollars.

In sports, Lance Armstrong wins his sixth consecutive Tour de France, overcoming the hardship of having to pedal hundreds of kilometers with hostile French persons clinging to his legs.

Speaking of sporting triumphs, in . . .


. . . Greece hosts a highly successful Olympics, with the USA winning all the gold medals, at least the ones shown on TV. Fears of terrorist attacks prove unjustified, most likely because the terrorists, like everybody else, are watching women's beach volleyball. The only major controversy involves the men's gymnastics gold medal, which is won by American Paul Hamm, despite exit polls showing it should have gone to a South Korean.

On the political front, the Republicans gather for their national convention in New York City, which welcomes them with open armpits. But the hot political story is the allegation by a group of Swift Boat veterans that John Kerry exaggerated his Vietnam accomplishments, and that in fact his boat was, quote, "not particularly swift." This story produces a media frenzy of charges and countercharges that soon has the entire nation riveted to reruns of "America's Funniest Home Videos."

In other political news, New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey resigns after confirming persistent rumors that he has nipples.

In weather news, an unprecedented series of hurricanes — Arnie, Barb, Chuck, Deb, Ernie, Francine, Gus and Harlotta — all head directly for Florida, causing millions of Sunshine State residents, by longstanding tradition, to throng to home-supply stores in an effort to purchase the two available pieces of plywood. Damage is extensive, although experts say it would have been much worse if not for a dense protective barrier of TV news people standing on the beaches and excitedly informing the viewing audience that the wind was blowing.

In other bad news, the Department of Homeland Fear, acting on credible information, raises the National Terror Index Level to "EEEEEEEE," which is a level so high that only dogs can detect it.

Speaking of alarming, in . . .


. . . Florida's weather woes worsen as the Sunshine State is battered on consecutive days by hurricanes Irving, Jonetta, Karl, Louanne, Myron, Naomi, Orville, Peg and Quentin. When it is finally all over, many Florida residents are completely hairless, and shards of Walt Disney World are coming down as far away as Montana. The federal government, reacting quickly, sends a third sheet of plywood to Florida, and promises that a fourth will be on the way "soon."

In politics, the month begins with the Republican Convention and Mass Arrest still going on in New York City. The GOP delegates, confounding exit pollsters, nominate George W. Bush, who promises that, if re-elected, he will "continue doing whatever it says here on the TelePrompTer."

With more bad news coming from Iraq, and Americans citing terrorism and health care as their major concerns, the news media continue their laser-beam focus on the early 1970s. Dan Rather leads the charge with a report on CBS's "60 Minutes" citing a memo, allegedly written in 1972, suggesting that Bush shirked his National Guard duty. Critics charge that the memo is a fake, pointing out that at one point it specifically mentions the 2003 Outkast hit "Hey Ya." Rather refuses to back down, arguing that the reference could be to "an early version of the song."

Just when the public is about to abandon hope in the presidential election, the candidates get together for an actual debate at the University of Miami Convocation Center, which is the only building left standing in Florida. In summary: Bush states that being president is really, really hard, for him, anyway. Kerry states that he is really, really smart and has like 185 specific plans. It is agreed there will be two more debates, although nobody can explain why.

In aviation news, US Airways files for bankruptcy for a second time, only to have a federal judge rule that the airline can't possibly get any more bankrupt than it already is. Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration, acting on credible information, announces that it will be requiring additional airport screening for commercial-airline passengers who are, quote, "wearing clothes."

On the legal front, a judge drops rape charges against Kobe Bryant on the grounds that "the Scott Peterson trial is hogging all the cable-TV celebrity legal analysts."

In medical news, the popular anti-arthritis drug Vioxx is pulled from the market after clinical trials show that it may contain carbohydrates. On a more-positive note, former president Bill Clinton experiences chest pains and is rushed to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where, in a five-hour operation, surgeons successfully remove a glazed doughnut the size of a catcher's mitt.

Speaking of the National Pastime, in . . .


. . . the Boston Red Sox, ending an 86-year drought, defeat the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series, defying exit polls that had overwhelmingly picked the Green Bay Packers. The Red Sox get into the Series thanks to the fact that the New York Yankees — who were leading the American League championships three games to none, and have all-stars at every position, not to mention a payroll larger than the gross national product of Sweden — chose that particular time to execute the most spectacular choke in all of sports history, an unbelievable Gag-o-Rama, a noxious nosedive, a pathetic gut-check failure of such epic dimensions that every thinking human outside of the New York Metropolitan area experienced a near-orgasmic level of happiness. But there is no need to rub it in.

In entertainment news, Howard Stern signs a five-year, $500 million deal to move his show to satellite radio, where a man can still display a nipple.

On the health front, the big story is a nationwide shortage of flu vaccine, caused by the fact that apparently all the flu vaccine in the world is manufactured by some guy in Wales or someplace with a Bunsen burner. Congress, acting with unusual swiftness, calls on young, healthy Americans to forego getting flu shots this year so that more vaccine will be available for members of Congress.

President Bush notes that additional vaccine "could be hidden somewhere in Iraq."

John Kerry, campaigning in North Carolina, kills a raccoon with a hatchet.

In aviation news, SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded manned rocket, breaks free from its mother plane, soars 62 miles above the earth, swoops gracefully back to earth, rolls to a stop on the Mojave Desert, and files for bankruptcy.

Abroad, Yasser Arafat collapses and is taken to a hospital, where his condition rapidly worsens and continues to worsen until nobody thinks it can get any worse, but somehow it does. "It's really bad," says a hospital spokesperson. "We've never seen anybody achieve this degree of worsening without kicking the actual bucket."

Osama bin Laden, who has not been seen or heard from in quite a while, releases a video in which he states that he is "willing to listen to offers from satellite radio."

In other international news, Afghanistan's historic first democratic elections go off without a hitch, except for an unexplained 27,500 votes from residents of Palm Beach County, Fla.

Speaking of elections, in . . .


. . . the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign, which has been going on since the early stages of the Cher Farewell Tour, finally staggers to the finish line. John Kerry easily sweeps to a 53-state landslide victory in the exit polls and has pretty much picked out his new Cabinet when word begins to leak out that the actual, physical voters have elected George W. Bush. Democrats struggle to understand how this could have happened, and, after undergoing a harsh and unsparing self-examination, conclude that red-state residents are morons. Some Democrats threaten to move to Canada; Republicans, in a gracious gesture of reconciliation, offer to help them pack.

The post-election recriminations and name-calling continue for more than a week, until finally the public, realizing that there are still important issues that affect the entire nation, returns its attention to the Scott Peterson trial, which finally ends with the jury finding Peterson guilty of being just unbelievably irritating. The verdict means sudden unemployment for thousands of cable-news legal analysts, who return to their cave to hang upside down by day and suck cow blood by night until they are called for the next big TV trial.

Meanwhile there are big changes in the Bush Cabinet, the most notable involving Secretary of State Colin Powell, who announces his resignation after returning from a trip to find all his office furniture replaced by Condoleezza Rice's. Attorney General John Ashcroft also announces that he will leave the Cabinet to resume private life as a frozen haddock.

Dan Rather also resigns, on orders received via the secret radio in his teeth.

In other presidential news, thousands attend a festive dedication of the 70,000-square-foot William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., next door to the 90,000-square-foot William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Cafeteria.

As the nation enters the holiday season, the festive mood is dampened by the intrusion of grim reality, as 137 Americans die in vicious pre-dawn aisle-to-aisle combat over deeply discounted post-Thanksgiving Christmas sale items. Congress vows to remain on recess.

Abroad, the big news is the presidential election in the Ukraine, where the government, citing exit polls, declares that Viktor Yanukovych has defeated Viktor Yushchenko. Hundreds of thousands of outraged Ukrainians take to the streets, protesting the fact that they cannot remember which Viktor is which. Many threaten to move to Canada.

Meanwhile, the condition of Yasser Arafat, already worse than anybody believed possible, somehow worsens still more, until it becomes so bad that Arafat no longer responds to a medical procedure known technically as the Hatpin Test, at which point he is declared legally deceased. After a funeral service attended by a large and extremely enthusiastic crowd, he is buried in several locations.

In sports, a Pacers-Pistons NBA game in Detroit turns into a riot after Pacers star and rocket scientist Ron Artest, hit by a cup thrown by Fan A, retaliates by charging into the stands and attacking Fans B, C and D. Explaining his actions later on the "Today" show, Artest says he thought he "saw weapons of mass destruction."

Speaking of sportsmanship, in . . .


. . . the pro-baseball world is stunned by the unbelievably shocking and astounding and totally unexpected news that some players may have taken steroids. "Gosh," exclaims baseball commissioner Bud "Bud" Selig, "this could explain why so many players suddenly develop 200 additional pounds of pure muscle and, in some cases, a tail." Seeking to restore fan confidence in the sport, the players' union and the team owners, in a rare display of cooperation, agree that it will be necessary to raise ticket prices.

In Washington, the Cabinet shuffle continues as John Hargrove resigns as Secretary of Interstate Affairs upon being informed, after four years in Washington, that there is no such Cabinet position. "Under the circumstances," states President Bush, "he did a heckuva job."

On the military front, the president, in a move that sparks international outrage, announces that he is sending Ron Artest to Iraq. Meanwhile, the dollar continues to decline abroad, largely because of what U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow describes as "French waiters."

In other international news, Iran continues to heatedly deny that it is developing nuclear weapons, but is unable to offer a plausible explanation as to why it purchased 200 pounds of enriched uranium on eBay. The United Nations, reacting to this crisis with unusual swiftness, resolves to do nothing.

In the Ukraine, weeks of massive street protests finally lead to a ruling by the Ukrainian supreme court that there must be a new election between the two Viktors, only this time, "they have to wear name tags." The protesters attempt to go back indoors, only to discover that their shoes are frozen to the streets.

Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat continues to worsen.

And he is not alone. As we look back on the events of 2004, we sometimes get the feeling that the whole world is worsening. It would be easy to become depressed about the future, and yet . . .

. . . and yet we are not. As we approach the end of the year, we find ourselves feeling hope, optimism, and a warm glow of happiness. Why? Because we've been hitting the eggnog. We recommend you do the same. But whatever you do: Have a happy new year.

Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald. Write to him c/o The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132. © Dave Barry Dist. by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.