- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009


For many, 2008 was an annus horribilis that could not end soon enough. It was a leap year, so we had an extra day, and chronologists report that because the Earth, like the economy, is slowing down, it was necessary to add an extra second on Dec. 31 to get things right. So it may have been in fact what it felt like - the longest year ever.

The year 2008 has much to answer for. Perhaps that is why the Chinese call it the Year of the Rat when people should not rely on too much luck. In the United States, we experienced a presidential campaign that seemed interminable, a frightening financial system meltdown and global recession so severe that no economist will predict with clarity when we might emerge.

Our fall from financial grace caused Prime Minister Gordon Brown of England to call for a single global regime of financial regulation to lessen the possibility that a meltdown in one country might cause a domino effect around the world.

There are our military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight. We ran unprecedented fiscal deficits approaching $500 billion (not fully accounting for the cost of the two wars) with more to come from proposed stimulus packages. Our national debt of $10.6 trillion and rising is described by the president-elect as a “mountain.” We are losing jobs at the astounding rate of five a second. Our current account deficit, the key measure of how much more we consume than how much we produce, is now roughly $800 billion, almost 7 percent of U.S. gross domestic product (China has a current account surplus of $370 billion, the world’s largest). As Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan said in a masterpiece of understatement, “The teachers now have some problems.”

There was no shortage of cataclysmic events either. There was the Atlanta tornado, the China earthquake, the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai, and the ramp-up of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. As Bobby Kennedy was fond of saying, “Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

Forget about the appalling greed, fraud and mismanagement to come out of the private sector hallmarked by the gullibility of the victims and the rapacity of the perpetrators. While we railed against the corruption and lack of transparency in the developing world, we saw in our own country sordid breaches of trust on the part of public officials that appeared to reach pandemic proportions.. And, quite remarkably, it all occurred in 2008. To recap some of the highlights:

c Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of obstruction of justice for covering up an extramarital affair with a co-worker. Guess it’s no longer OK to lie under oath about sex.

— New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was identified as “Client No. 9” of a prostitution ring.

— Despite almost universal cries for his resignation, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is hanging on to his office as leverage to cut a better deal with the prosecutors. Mr. Blagojevich, the fourth of the last seven Illinois governors to be charged with criminal wrongdoing, stands accused of trying to extort money in return for political favors from those doing business with the state, including aspirants for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. The job-seekers are described in the criminal complaint as “Candidates 1 through 6.” When it comes to governors, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

— The senior senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens, the longest-serving senator in the history of the Republican Party (40 years), was convicted of seven felony counts of lying on Senate financial disclosure documents to hide his receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars in free home renovations and other gifts from an Alaska businessman.

— Idaho Sen. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport men’s room and then fought unsuccessfully in court to withdraw his plea of guilty to a criminal offense. And, yes, folks, he said he was resigning from the Senate only to withdraw his intention to resign. He did not stand for re-election this year.

— Former North Carolina senator and vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, a Democratic presidential hopeful -remember him? - recanted his heated denials of an extramarital affair and asserted in his defense that it only happened at a time when his wife’s cancer was in remission.

— And to trim the tree, perhaps less serious but an apparent abuse of power nonetheless, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who used her office to try to get her former brother-in-law fired from the State Police, was found to have violated the State Ethics Act. Another panel subsequently cleared her of any ethics violation.

Long enough list for you? Probably. In the interests of space we can omit mention of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme that rocked the financial markets worldwide and the reported misdeeds of rogue lawyers and judges that pervaded the news.

We don’t need to mention the athletes on steroids, and those who lied under oath about it, the NFL coaches who spied on opposing teams or the questionable birthdates furnished by the Chinese gymnastic competitors in the Beijing Olympics. Once upon a time we had some ethical standards. Apparently, no more.

No wonder “Frost/Nixon,” a psychodrama recalling the seamy Watergate affair of the 1970s, nabbed five Golden Globe nominations in nearly all major categories. Americans often seek to apologize for the scandals of today by dwelling on the scandals of yesteryear. Or perhaps we retreat into a time warp fantasy. Tying “Frost/Nixon” for Golden Globes was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the Brad Pitt drama about a man who ages backward. In the words of that great moral philosopher, Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

So we greet 2009 and the advent of the Obama administration with its hopeful promise of change. And it is change we undoubtedly need, change in our foreign policy, and change in our economic house. As we necessarily address these weighty concerns, we must change lax ethical standards which deny accountability for not only incompetence and inefficiency, but also corruption and betrayal of public trust. I fear the specter of 2008 will cast a long shadow over the land we will be hard pressed to obliterate.

Happy New Year.

James D. Zirin is a New York trial lawyer. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-host of the cable TV talk show “Digital Age.”

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