Trivial Pursuits

chainsaw-wielding firefighter heads past low flames and heavy smoke along a line near where homes are threatened in the Warm Springs area of Ketchum, Idaho, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007.
President Bush was in Florida, promoting plans to boost reading skills. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared "war on bureaucracy" at the Pentagon. Health groups were busy on the eve of "National 9-1-1 Day" meant to raise awareness about heart attacks.

That was Sept. 10.

By late the next morning, America was a changed land, counting its dead and beginning to fashion a new set of heroes, villains, fears and preoccupations. Much of what happened in the first 36 weeks of the year suddenly seemed distant or trivial.

Just a few weeks earlier, the media had declared "The Summer of the Shark" after a handful of grisly attacks along the Atlantic Coast. U.S. Rep. Gary Condit was America's most reluctant TV star, dogged by camera crews for months while dodging questions about his relationship with missing intern Chandra Levy.

There was trouble aplenty - or so it seemed at the time. California suffered rolling blackouts, Cincinnati endured race riots. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani grappled simultaneously with prostate cancer and bitter divorce proceedings. A man brandishing a gun opened fire near the White House.

Abroad, before Kabul and Kandahar became household names, India suffered a calamitous earthquake, Nepal's royal family was massacred by its crown prince and Yugoslavia's former leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was indicted for war crimes.

Even Sept. 10 - a day that now symbolizes less worrisome times - was bloody. A former security guard wanted in the slayings of five people killed himself after a hectic chase and shootout with Sacramento police. "I giveth and I taketh away," 20-year-old Joseph Ferguson said in a video suicide note.

He was just one of many villains now eclipsed by the al-Qaida network. People like former Ku Klux Klansman Thomas Blanton, Jr., convicted in the 1963 church bombing that killed four black girls in Birmingham, Ala., and the Texas prisoners who gunned down a police officer during an escape that lasted 42 days - they've all faded back into obscurity.

For President Bush and the U.S. military, now popular protagonists in the war on terrorism, the pre-9/11 world was less daunting than the present but still full of pitfalls.

Mr. Bush was sworn in Jan. 20 after a near dead-heat election in which he lost the popular vote. One Cabinet nominee, Linda Chavez, withdrew amid controversy; another, John Ashcroft, faced bitter confirmation hearings before gaining the job of attorney general that now puts him in charge of the terror and anthrax investigations.

Bush's dominant policy concerns included tax cuts and stem cells; perhaps his biggest setback was the defection of James Jeffords that tilted control of the Senate from Republicans to Democrats.

For the military, 2001 had been a downright bad year. A Navy submarine struck and sank a Japanese fishing boat near Hawaii, killing nine people. A Navy spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter; the American crew was held for 11 days on a Chinese islad. Training accidents - including an errant bombing in Kuwait and several aircraft crashes - killed dozens of soldiers and airmen.

It hadn't been a much better year for law enforcers. The FBI uncovered a long-term spy in its ranks, and its mishandling of documents briefly delayed the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, America's unofficial public enemy No. 1 before Osama bin Laden assumed the role.

Like members of the armed forces, New York City's police officers are now national heroes. But earlier in the year, the city agreed to an $8.7 million payment to a Haitian immigrant tortured in a police station bathroom, and an officer was charged with the drunk-driving killing of a pregnant woman, her son and her sister.

Even the news media benefited from an improved public image in the wake of the attacks as serious stories, often with international angles, took precedence over lifestyle features and celebrity gossip. Whether the change is lasting remains to be seen.

"One would hope that serious news has established a foothold, but I think the jury is still out," said Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

"What about China? Drugs in Colombia? The Argentine debt crisis? These are not minor stories. When the crisis subsides, what is the media going to do? And is the public going to tune in?"

Many of the characters who made their way into the spotlight during the first eight months of the year now seem like answers in a trivia contest. Among them:

  • Denise Rich (socialite/songwriter who helped gain a pardon from President Clinton for her ex-husband, billionaire fugitive Marc Rich).
  • Danny Almonte (overage Little League pitcher, at last report attending eighth grade in the Bronx).
  • Karin Stanford (her affair with married civil rights leader Jesse Jackson produced a daughter).
  • Dennis Tito (first space tourist).
  • Tommy Maddox (first, and last, Most Valuable Player of the late and largely unlamented XFL).

    And how many Americans remember Thierry Devaux, a Frenchman whose motorized parachute got tangled on the Statue of Liberty's arm in August?

    "It's an artistic way for me to express myself," Devaux said of his stunt-gone-awry.

    To many New Yorkers, and hundreds of inconvenienced tourists, the artistic impulse seemed foolish at the time. But three weeks later, when other foreigners came out of the sky and turned a taller New York landmark into a killing field, anyone recalling Devaux for even an instant might have forgiven him.

    By David Crary
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