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year in review
Illustration by Jay Lincoln

Hand Me Down a Cold One;
1996 Was a Big Mouth Year

By A. Lin Neumann

FORGET WEB TV, Java and that stylish new cellular phone you can wear like a pendant on a gold chain. There was one commercial event in 1996 that stood out from the flood of technological breakthroughs that reshape postmodern life every couple of minutes: the wide-mouth beer can.

Both Coors and Miller introduced this great leap forward in guzzle-delivery systems, proclaiming it a major development in frosty refreshment. But why, you may well ask, does a beer can need a wider mouth? To better enable the discerning tippler to decant the malt beverage into an icy mug? I think not. No, this big-gulp brew-can is simple in design and straightforward in purpose: it gets you fucked up faster. Heck, this may be the biggest advance for fraternity parties since Zima.

The big-mouth can is understandable on another level, though. It was an election year, and in the numbing run-up to the pre-ordained conclusion of the year's really big story, the keen observer could be forgiven for finding solace in the wide-mouth can from time to time.

A few really quick brews could help while away the eternity that passed while we waited for Bob Dole to just go away.

Like a nagging uncle at Thanksgiving leaning into you with greasy breath and a couple of those big-mouth brewskis under his belt, Bob Dole made a lot of us squirm. Throughout winter and spring, there he was, winning the primaries, speaking of himself in the third person, droning on, breathing on us. Into the summer, he would not leave the party, and insisted on being the candidate. He persisted finally into the fall, a forlorn figure by now, reminiscing about the Big War, looking a little lost. When the end finally came and Bill Clinton showed him the door, the relief was almost palpable. Finally, Uncle Bob went home.

Olympic Hurdle

THE ELECTION, though, was not the only thing that tried our patience in 1996. This was a year that just went on and on and on as big public events, tragic or comic, started but never seemed to finish. The 1996 John Tesh Olympics went on for what, four, maybe five months? (Cut to the tape of perky Kerri Strug and her bum ankle limping down the runway one more time). The Atlanta Games, as presented on NBC, became one long commercial for American clichés. It was as if there were no other countries and no other athletes than the brave, tragic, strong, proud, triumphant Americans. How embarrassing.

And I'm sorry, but the sight of Muhammad Ali, quivering from his Parkinson's disease as he lit the Olympic torch, was an occasion for sadness, not smarmy nonsense about overcoming adversity. You have to wonder if Ali, the once, angry young champion, scorned at home in his prime and embraced by the world, realized that he was being used as a video clip for jingoism now that he can no longer easily speak his mind.

Politics By Any Other Name

THE BATTLE INTENSIFIED in 1996 between Duracell and the Energizer bunny, with both brands boasting of "on-board battery testers" so that when a flashlight doesn't work anymore because the battery is worn out you can test the battery and make sure that the battery is dead so that you'll know why the flashlight isn't working. Something like that.

In a possibly related development, California Governor Pete Wilson came home after one of the least-inspiring-ever races for president and quickly signed legislation to chemically castrate twice-convicted child molesters. Political years, of course, are always weird, and 1996 was no exception. You have to wonder, though, what it would have taken for Bill Clinton to lose this one.

To believe the Republicans, Bill and Hillary are the two crookedest people in America. Hearing after hearing attempted to paint them as the king and queen of sleazy real estate, campaign finance and abuse of power. Then chief Democratic strategist Dick Morris got caught sucking toes and giggling about state secrets with some hose monkey while Clinton's best friends seemed to be going to jail.

Finally, as the election wound down with Clinton urging campaign finance reform, his people got caught taking millions of dollars from some Indonesian big shot. And he still won walking away.

It really wasn't Bob Dole's year.

By the end of it all, the Republicans were talking about consensus building and nonpartisanship in Washington with their old buddy Bill Clinton. Not that very much separates Clinton from the GOP anymore. He signed a welfare-reform bill that is certain to put more poor people on the street and send more children to bed hungry , and he turned his back on the gay community by signing the Defense of Marriage Act. Clinton defending marriage? Who is he kidding, anyway?

About all progressives could take heart from, really, was the passage of the medical marijuana initiatives in California and Arizona and the defeat of a few crazies, chief among them U.S. Rep. Bob Dornan in Orange County. More troubling was Californian's anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209, which threatens to grow into a national movement that will make racism an acceptable policy alternative.

Say Good-bye

BETTER LEFT FORGOTTEN: Steve "Flat Tax" Forbes and Pat "Pitchfork" Buchanan. Proof that aliens roam the earth: Ross Perot. And just in case you forgot that it could always be worse, more Richard Nixon tapes were released. These showed President Dick and a few key aides talking about targeting "rich Jews" who supported the Democrats for investigation and harassment.

Finally, the Big, Fat, Stupid & Boring Award goes to phony liberal comedian Al Franken and social-climbing conservative Arianna Huffington for their shameless self-promotional nonsense as they covered the GOP and Democratic conventions for the Comedy Channel. And the I Wish I Had Said That On TV Award goes to veteran broadcaster David Brinkley. Apparently unaware that the microphone was on, Brinkley, who is retiring this year, told viewers listening to ABC's election-night coverage that President Clinton was "a bore" with "not a creative bone in his body." The American people, he said, "could expect more goddamned nonsense" from Clinton in the next four years. Say good night, David.

Procreation In Celebrityland

NEVER MIND Pamela Anderson Lee's baby, Madonna proved that she could still upstage everybody by renewing her fading star with a very public pregnancy that finally gave the world 6 pounds, 9 ounces of Lourdes Maria Ciccone Leon. The baby was delivered by Dr. Paul Fleiss, the pediatrician father of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss. Oh well. If the movie Evita is as big a hit as the pregnancy was, the Maternal Girl will finally be all the way back, if indeed she ever left.

Then there was Michael Jackson. When his perfect fairy-tale marriage to Lisa Marie Presley ended, he managed somehow to impregnate, then marry, his nurse.

Elsewhere in Hollywood, black women got their revenge with Waiting to Exhale and older women got their revenge with First Wives Club and junkies got their day in the twilight with Trainspotting and Courtney Love moved from punkprincess to center stage by playing--what else?--a junkie in The People vs. Larry Flynt.

But the really big movies, which may or may not be a threat to our civilization, just got dumber and louder, as we moved from the flying cows of Twister to the burning ruins of our cities with Independence Day. The notion that ID4 was a kind of family-values night out at the movies seemed especially sick when you considered its weird America-first message and megacarnage.

Speaking of celebrity, is it just me, or was there something vaguely pornographic about the $34 million raised at Sotheby's through the auction of the late Queen Jackie's knickknacks? Well, somebody has to keep the Kennedy clan in silver and gold. Then John-John married Carolyn Bessette and the press went into full gush-mode, dubbing her the new queen. Enough.

Let's not leave celebrities behind for 1996 just yet. A moment of silence, please, for the difficult year perky Kathie Lee Gifford had explaining that sweatshop thing. At least I didn't hear a new Kathie Lee CD this year, and if there was one, I don't want to know about it.

Money Talk

ACCORDING TO THE unofficial Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock on the World Wide Web (http://www. webho.com/WealthClock), Mr. Microsoft, the richest man on the planet, is worth just over $22 billion, depending on the prevailing price of Microsoft stock. But that's not the scary thing. The scary thing is that he isn't anywhere close to peaking. The Microsoft web browser is suddenly everywhere, 90 percent of the world's personal computers are running some form of Windows, and his other products, from news gathering on MS NBC to encyclopedias and word processing, are booming.

Newsweek magazine proclaimed him "the most powerful single figure in the business world today" and talked of the coming "Microsoft Century." And he's still only 41 years old.

Elsewhere in Big Powerful Guy world, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch spent much of 1996 calling each other names. Ted, the largest shareholder in Time Warner and founder of CNN, and Rupert, Fox Broadcasting, Twentieth Century Fox, etc., are going head to head in the cable news business, and they have been fighting over access to New York City, among other things. Turner says he will "squish" Murdoch "like a bug."

The Murdoch-owned New York Post shoots back, "Turner is insane!" This would all be good fun in the corporate suites were it not for the fact that these two mega-moguls (along with the ever metastasizing Disney empire) essentially control much of popular culture.

Then there was the sobering news that the mighty Wal-Mart chain, the world's largest retailer, has begun quietly censoring music lyrics, forcing record companies to release sanitized versions of some CDs or risk the marketing giant refusing to carry the product.

Yes, there is a reason to worry about the concentration of business power in fewer and fewer hands. The stakes seemed equally high when McDonald's put the big bucks into the advertising campaign for the Arch DeLuxe burger, with its "big, grown-up taste." I tried it: it was gray, it was wet, it tasted like cardboard mush on a bun.

Death Becomes Electric

DR. Jack Kevorkian had another big year as he helped a number of his patients avoid the bill collector permanently. The total is up to something like 45 assisted suicides by now, while he has been acquitted in five separate trials of charges growing out of his unusual medical practice.

Exiting via a more traditional route was gangsta rapper Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas that led critics to urge everybody to listen to the mellower sound of the Fugees as an antidote to violent music. Others bidding farewell and much to be missed in 1996: extraordinary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, sax player Gerry Mulligan, dancer Gene Kelly, pool hustler Minnesota Fats, bluegrass creator Bill Munroe and George Burns, age 100--our world is a little smaller without each of them. Tiny Tim sang "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" one last time. Margaux Hemingway died in mystery, while Smashing Pumpkins, musician Jonathan Melvoin continued the proud tradition of rock stars taking the big dive with a needle in the arm.

But it was left to Timothy Leary to take the final exit at center stage. The Internet tuned in as Leary tuned out this year, fading away for his cyberfans on a web site devoted to his own demise. The pied piper of alternative reality left this mortal plain with the words, "Why not? Why not? ... Beautiful."

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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