Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

10 Stories That Defined 2008

December 31, 2008 12:31 PM
by Christopher Coats
FindingDulcinea looks back at the year that was, showcasing the events, characters, heroes and villains that defined and shaped 2008.

Barack Obama Is Elected the First African-American President

Concluding a historic election year, with the first viable female candidate and first woman on the GOP ticket, the Illinois senator completed his nearly two year run for the presidency with an acceptance speech in Chicago’s Grant Park as the nation’s first African-American president.

Following a landslide victory against Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama addressed the crowd of thousands after greatly expanding the electoral map to win states that had not leaned Democratic in decades.

With the help of an immensely successful online fundraising effort and an army of volunteers, the one-term senator also helped his party garner seats in both houses of Congress, giving them sizable majorities and influence in each.

Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch Collapse, Signaling Financial Market Meltdown

Signaling that no institution, no matter how old or successful, was beyond the reach of the financial crisis, early September saw Bank of America purchase Merrill Lynch, and the 158-year-old Lehman Brothers dissolve after a last-minute attempt to save the investment bank by Barclays fell through.

The closures spurred Congress and the White House into a fierce debate over a possible bailout plan worth hundreds of billons.

Signed by President Bush in early October, the $700 billion bailout has been a point of contention since its passage, earning criticism for accountability issues and its apparent failure to stem the financial fallout so far.

The 2008 Olympic Games

After months of speculation about possible protests and environmental limitations to holding an international sporting event in China, the 2008 Olympic Games proved to be one of the event’s most successful and most watched.

Owing much to scheduling agreements and Michael Phelps’ attempt at earning a record eight gold medals, the Games hit just the right notes to send audiences scrambling to follow every dramatic storyline and breathtaking physical feat.

Tainted Products Catch Up With China

Faced with entire countries shutting off Chinese imports after a series of tainted products forced massive recalls and lawsuits, Chinese government officials announced that they would be offering new health and safety regulations and enforcing those guidelines already on the books.

From toys to dairy products to dog food, the reputation of Chinese products took a massive hit in 2008, forcing regulators into action, fearing that a 2.2 percent drop in exports in November could signal a broader and economically destructive trend.

Myanmar Suffers Cyclone in Secrecy

Forced to face the year’s deadliest natural disaster hidden from the sympathetic view of the world, the tragic state of Myanmar was clear after Cyclone Nargis razed the country in early May. With the country’s military junta keeping international aid efforts at bay for as long as possible, and greatly underreporting the ferocity of the storm before it reached the shores and the damage done after it had passed, thousands would lose their lives as the government continued to insist that they did not need help.

The situation was made worse by impacts to the country’s central agricultural region and efforts by the government to withhold food supplies, resulting in an estimated 100,000 dead.

Somali Pirates Transform the Waters Off of East Africa

International piracy made a dramatic return to the world stage this year, grabbing headlines for both its novelty and high stakes action, turning 2008 into the "Year of the Pirate."

Although piracy has plagued the waters off the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia for decades, 2008 saw a surge in piracy that made the world sit up and take notice, drawing naval vessels from across the globe to the Indian Ocean to join the fight. Brazen in their attacks, the Somali pirates, embarking from the shores of a country with little infrastructure and no functioning government or means to halt the assaults, began targeting larger and larger ships as they made their way to the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

A Year of Global Political Upheaval

While no year is completely free of political strife and government shake-ups, 2008 witnessed some of the world’s last monarchies fade into history as democratic systems took their place in locales from Tonga to Nepal.

However, absolute power made a comeback in other corners of the world, as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi passed legislation to exclude him, his prime minister and the speakers of the two parliamentary houses from future prosecution. Meanwhile, governments across the globe saw broad shifts of power, including Pakistan and Thailand, while the Prime Minister of Canada found a novel way to escape a vote of no confidence—disband the Parliament.

Advances in the Fight Against Terrorism Overshadowed in Mumbai

Strides made in the fight against terror groups from Spain’s Basque separatists to Colombia’s FARC, were overshadowed by the resurgence of the Taliban and the November attacks in Mumbai that left scores dead and the fragile peace between Pakistan and India as strained as it has been in years.

Coming months after the arrest of ETA commander Francisco Javier López Peña, and the dramatic rescue of 15 FARC-held prisoners, the attacks, resulting in over 200 dead and widespread destruction and fear, revealed attackers who could launch organized, systematic attacks with little initial resistance.

In addition to sowing seeds of suspicion between India and Pakistan, the alleged home of the attackers, the Mumbai offensive placed further pressure on a global tourism market already hindered by the worldwide financial slowdown.

The Gas Price Roller Coaster

The roller coaster ride in oil prices in 2008 drove gas prices to all-time highs due to a confusing and debatable set of circumstances. Congress, speculators, traders and drivers all shared the blame at some point or another, but as gas inched past $5 a gallon in some parts of the country, everyone felt the pinch.

In addition to higher prices for everything from consumer products to airline tickets, car companies saw sales for SUVs dissolve as commuters sought out buses and trains in record numbers. Although prices have leveled out to early 2004 levels, fear of another spike has resulted in increased interest in alternative fuels and expanding lines of public transportation.

Political Scandals in 2008

In a year of epic political coverage, there was no shortage of controversy and domestic political upheaval to fill the lulls on the campaign trail. Scandals from Alaska to New Orleans brought veteran politicians down in shame.

The latter class included the GOP’s longest sitting senator, Ted Stevens, who lost his reelection bid after being indicted on charges of accepting gifts and failing to report them.

Voters also turned out Democrat William Jefferson of New Orleans after the FBI found $90,000 worth of bribe money in his freezer.

New York had its own share of controversy with Congressman Vito Fossella’s DUI arrest and the subsequent revelation that he had carried on a relationship and had a child with a woman who was not his wife. However, the state’s governor, Eliot Spitzer, managed to take scandal a step farther with the admission that he had met with prostitutes on a number of occasions, forcing him to resign his office to David Paterson.

Coming late in the year, but no less noteworthy, was Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell the Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. When federal agents recorded Blagojevich demanding favors, appointments and finally cash for the seat, the governor joined Mass. Rep. Diane Wilkerson in the exclusive club of public officials who found themselves on the wrong end of a federal microphone.

Wilkerson was taped accepting $23,000 in bribes for legislative favors.

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