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1998: TRUTH IS MORE CONFUSING THAN FICTION

Hanky-panky in high places, Leonardo DiCaprio at very low temperatures,; Viagra raises hopes, Saddam inspires ire; an intern called Monica, a small investor named Francine. After 1998 the average person needs a half-dozen cups of kindness to keep the head from spinning.

Last year, in looking back at the events of 1997 _ in which the two most culturally significant events involved famous men biting people _ I concluded there could not possibly be a year as pathetic as that one.

Boy, was I a moron.

Not that 1998 was ALL bad. There were moments that made us feel good about ourselves. Mark McGwire hitting that 62nd home run was one. And then there was . . . Mark McGwire hitting that 63rd home run . . . and that 70th home run!

The story that dominated the news _ that at first fascinated us but that was hyped and hammered so relentlessly by the shrieking, hysterical, obsessive media that we wished it would for God's sake GO AWAY _ was, of course, the last episode of Seinfeld.

Also there was that pathetic mess in Washington.

So let's look back at 1998, shall we? Have a barf bag handy.

JANUARY

The year begins upbeat. The economy is sizzling, and millions of small investors are being lured by the siren call of Wall Street.

But ominous clouds appear on the world financial horizon, particularly in Asia, where the financial community is troubled by the news that Japanese banks have invested $17-billion in the New York State lottery.

In mid-January, the media gets wind of a new development in the ongoing investigation by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. A woman named Linda Tripp reportedly has recorded telephone conversations with a former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky who claims that, for a period of nearly two years, she was on special assignment to the president.

These reports set off a media frenzy. Many TV news outlets go to an all-Monica-all-the-time format, in which the clip of Monica embracing Bill at a rally is shown 750 times per hour.

White House spokespersons respond quickly, pointing out that this new allegation makes it difficult for the president and his advisers to carry on the important work of responding to all the other allegations. But the president himself is less than convincing. When directly asked, if he had an affair with Lewinsky, he replies: "Yes. I mean, no!"

The public quickly loses interest, spending time in movie theaters instead, weeping as Leonardo DiCaprio is transformed into The Human Popsicle in Titanic.

FEBRUARY

Things heat up in the Middle East; it is suspected that Iraq is manufacturing illegal weapons of mass destruction. The United States says it is ready to send bombers to crush Saddam, squash him like a bug, just like we did the last eight or nine times he acted up.

MARCH

The national sex scandal worsens. Former White House aide Kathleen Willey tells 60 Minutes that when she went to the Oval Office seeking job help, the president made an aggressive effort to feel her pain. The White House denies this.

The Whitewater investigation is dealt a severe blow with the death of James McDougal, believed to be the last surviving human being with any clue as to what "Whitewater" is.

Volkswagen introduces the new Beetle, which evokes the mood of the '60s via the classic "bug" shape and various touches: a flower vase, an eight-track tape player with a "Moby Grape" tape permanently jammed into it, and a Baggie containing seeds and stems under the front seat.

But the big product announcement is the anti-impotence drug Viagra, which is approved by the federal government after the delivery of what is described as a "courtesy trial sample" of seven tons of the blue pills to Sen. Strom Thurmond. Viagra is an immediate sensation, both in pill form and as an additive to the water supply in retirement communities.

APRIL

The Historic Tobacco Agreement of 1997 collapses when it is discovered that there is still one lawyer, believed to be in North Dakota, who is not going to get any money out of it.

The White House gets good news when a federal judge throws out the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit on the grounds that "her nose looks totally different." Kenneth Starr grills first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for five hours in front of a grand jury but is unable to link her to a series of convenience-store robberies in Newark, N.J.

The U.S. economy continues to boom as Citicorp and the Travelers Group merge to form CitiTravelCorp, which then turns around and has an even bigger merger with NationsBank, which has just merged with BankAmerica, the result being a company called CitiTravelNationsBankAmeriCorp, which has more vice presidents than the population of Belgium and is expected to spend $23-billion just getting its voicemail to work.

This news sends the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the 9,000 mark. Wall Street experts predict that it will keep going up forever and that small investors will all have polo ponies and helicopter-equipped yachts.

MAY

India shocks the world by setting off three underground nuclear blasts. Seventeen days later, India's archenemy, Pakistan, sets off a nuclear device of its own. A few days after that, Earl A. Crablick of East Orange, N.J., who according to neighbors "doesn't get along with anybody," sets off HIS nuclear device.

JUNE

President Clinton travels to China. Although he is unable to get the Chinese to agree to major concessions on human rights, he is able to obtain what a high-level State Department source describes as "a real nice statuette of a yak." The dramatic highlight of the trip comes when Clinton and Chinese president Jiang Zemin engage in a debate that is broadcast live on Chinese television, although this triumph is somewhat diminished by the discovery that every one of the president's statements was translated by the Chinese as "Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy."

JULY

A federal judge deals a blow to the Whitewater probe, tossing out an indictment against Webster Hubbell on the grounds that "it sounds like he has two last names." But Starr's office wins custody of Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, which, according to a high-level source, "looks terrific on Ken."

Things are grim on the international economic front as the Asian crisis deepens, but the U.S. stock market soars, with the Dow hitting the 54-million mark on July 17. Financial experts assure everybody that the upward trend will continue. This causes the last remaining small-investor holdout in the United States, 87-year-old Francine DuPlenum of Pork Meadow, Miss., to withdraw her life savings of $1,529.07 and invest it in "growth stocks."

The instant this transaction is entered into the Giant Financial Conspiracy Computer, it triggers the start of a massive slide in stock prices, accompanied by an equally massive output of statements from financial experts informing the public that this is exactly what they expected to happen and what goes up must come down and there is no such thing as a free lunch.

AUGUST

Monica Lewinsky testifies before the grand jury, and in accordance with judicial traditions of fairness, her testimony is kept secret for an estimated 12 minutes. Meanwhile, the special prosecutor's office receives the results of a lab analysis of the stain on Lewinsky's dress, showing that the DNA belongs to O.J. Simpson.

On Aug. 17 President Clinton testifies before the Starr grand jury for seven hours, five hours of which are taken up by his carefully worded response to the question "What is your name?"

Meanwhile, the White House insists it has evidence to support bomb and missile strikes against sites connected with terrorist Osama bin Laden. There is some international criticism of the attacks, especially when one of the bombing targets turns out to be a Planet Hollywood. But upon further reflection all agree this is a good thing.

SEPTEMBER

The Starr Report is published, featuring explicit language and a glossy color centerfold of Monica Lewinsky, who reveals that her turn-ons are "wearing thongs and formulating educational policy."

Congress votes to allow the president's videotaped grand-jury testimony to be televised. On the tape, Clinton is subdued and tight-lipped, offering few clues about his inner feelings other than his necktie, which has the words "HANG TOUGH, MONICA!" printed on it.

OCTOBER

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat meet with President Clinton at the secluded Wye Plantation in rural Maryland. After a week of meetings, the three leaders are able to reach a liquor store that will deliver to their location. After that it takes them about 15 minutes to come up with a historic peace agreement, which is rushed by military jet back to the Middle East to be broken.

A dramatic chase on the Los Angeles freeway ends when police are able to stop a white Ford Bronco containing Bill Gates, who keeps officers at bay for several hours by threatening to release another version of Windows.

The beginning of the National Basketball Association season is canceled when players and owners are unable to agree on whether the players can wear shorts that are longer than their legs.

On Wall Street, stock prices sag as most small investors bail out. So the Federal Reserve Board cuts interest rates, sending stock prices soaring and creating what financial experts agree is a terrific investment opportunity.

NOVEMBER

Elections are held nationwide. The biggest surprise is in Minnesota, where Jesse "The Body" Ventura is elected by voters seeking a leader who not only can grasp the issues but also give them a noogie.

But the big story occurs on the international front, when the United States finally gets sick and tired of having its chain yanked by Saddam Hussein and decides to take care of him once and for all. A determined President Clinton orders U.S. bombers into the air. Just as they reach the Iraqi border, Clinton receives an urgent fax from Saddam stating: "I'M SORRY!" So Clinton orders the bombers to turn back. Then he receives another urgent fax from Saddam stating: "NOT!" So he orders the bombers to turn around and head for Iraq again. Then he gets ANOTHER urgent fax from Saddam stating: "NO, REALLY, I MEAN IT THIS TIME!" So he orders the bombers to turn around again. Then he receives yet ANOTHER urgent fax from Saddam stating: "GOTCHA! HA HA!" So he orders the bombers to turn around again. By this time they have run out of fuel and are forced to ditch in the Persian Gulf. The White House hails this as a major foreign-policy victory.

DECEMBER

As the Judiciary Committee prepares to vote on impeachment, the president goes on television to issue his 2,356th sincere apology, saying he is "a very, very, very, very, very bad person who has not, technically, committed any crime."

The Judiciary Committee approves two articles of impeachment. The matter goes to the House, where Democrats work for a compromise censure resolution, under which Clinton would remain in office but the White House would switch to inflatable interns. The deal falls through when Clinton refuses to admit to perjury, offering instead to issue another apology in which, a White House spokesperson says, "the president would, for the first time, bite both his lower AND upper lip."

The House impeaches Clinton, paving the way for a trial in the Senate to be presided over by Judge Wapner. As the historic significance of these events begins to sink in, the American public purchases record quantities of yo-yos.

On the evening of Dec. 16, in a move that White House spokespersons insist has nothing to do with impeachment, Bill Clinton goes on television to announce that, in response to repeated and flagrant defiance by Iraq, he has ordered massive air strikes against the offices of Kenneth Starr.

On Wall Street, all the major corporations in the world announce they are merging into one company with a name so long that nobody will be able to read it. This news propels stock prices to record levels, and financial experts agree that they will probably keep going up forever and make everybody rich, especially small investors who jump in now.

So 1998 goes out pretty much the way it came in, leaving us with 1999, the year we need to stomp out the Y2K "Millennium Bug" or at midnight on Dec. 31 all the computers in the world will go insane and civilization will collapse.

I'm not sure anybody would notice.

Anyway, happy new year.

Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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