It was neither the best of times, nor the worst of times, to steal an opening line from Dickens. It was neither the age of wisdom, nor the age of foolishness. We mixed belief with incredulity, light with darkness, enjoyed good and feared evil. Looking back on 2007, we mixed comparisons as if on a seesaw.
Suicide bombing looked to be less fashionable in the Middle East, but the assassination of Benazir Bhutto stunned everyone, reminding us that evil is always lurking in the shadows.
If the Iraq War once looked unwinnable, it now appears that the surge is working. It's no longer the single most important issue in the quickening presidential campaign. When Hillary Clinton bet on her vote for the war to help in the general election, she didn't foresee the extent to which it would hurt her, with the bizarre far left in her own party in the run-up to the nomination. Rudy Giuliani once looked like the toughest man to take on the war against terror, and now John McCain again looks like the man with the steady hand, a man proved right all along with his call for enough troops in Iraq. He faded in the fall, but now he's drawing support from a diverse array of sources, including Henry Kissinger, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Des Moines Register, the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader and the Boston Globe, at least until the Republicans choose their man. He's enjoying his own surge in Iowa and New Hampshire.
George W. has suffered high negatives at the end of his administration, but not nearly the high negatives of the Democrats in Congress, who, try as they might, haven't thwarted his aims. Though the president didn't do much to curtail government spending earlier in his administration, he promises to do more with his budget for 2009 (we can always hope).
Hillary Clinton once looked inevitable, but now she's merely one of three Democrats with uncertain prospects in Iowa and New Hampshire. Her glamour as a "first" among women with serious ambitions for the presidency has been challenged by Oprah, who put another kind of glamour on the line on behalf of Sen. Barack Obama. Hillary's "pro-gender" campaign doesn't play to a monolithic female audience.
This was the year celebrity became double-edged. Barbra Streisand, working the crowds for Hillary, looked anemic on the hustings, judged against Oprah in the battle of the divas. Voters may be asking why anyone should think an entertainer knows any more about a candidate or an issue than a Volkswagen mechanic or the check-out clerk at the supermarket. The stars attract attention, but do they change minds? They bring out the crowds, but do they bring out the votes? They may spread sunshine (or at least noise), but can they impart information?
Celebrities can raise the profile of a candidate or an issue, but they can't shape reactions to policies or furnish solutions to complicated problems, particularly foreign policy. Celebrities carry heavy baggage and agendas. Daniel Drezner, author of "All Politics is Global," observes the good and bad of celebrity endorsements. "So when Angelina Jolie attends the Davos Economic Forum or sponsors a Millennium Village in Cambodia, she's not only trying to do good, she's trying to create a brand image that lets Americans forget about her role in breaking up Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston," he writes in National Interest magazine. When Michael Jordan was still playing on the basketball court and was asked to endorse a Democratic senatorial candidate, he famously said that "Republicans buy sneakers too."
Celebrities, like the politicians they want to be, are vulnerable in the spotlight, which is why Hillary and Obama want to debate foreign policy rather than count the celebrities in their corners. Hillary's resident expert on everything has been her husband, but her attempt to link herself to his foreign policy expertise has backfired. The New York Times observed, with more than a little acid, that during President Clinton's major tests on terrorism, as to whether to bomb Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998: "Mrs. Clinton was barely speaking to her husband, let alone advising him, as the Lewinsky scandal sizzled."
We see the candidates looking both backward and forward with the fading of '07, as they might in "A Tale of Two Cities." Are they enjoying "the spring of hope," or enduring "the winter of despair"? We'll know soon enough, beginning Jan. 3. And Happy New Year to you, too.