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We should have at least been ready.


No year in the lives of any person living on this planet had been so hyped. The world hunkered down as the new millennium began, expecting tragedy _ computer failure, power grid crises, the end of the world.

None of that happened.

But shocks did come _ from the most unexpected of places.

The failure of punditry

Two semi-polished patricians from America's best finishing schools were expected to sleepwalk through a forgettable presidential campaign. Yet George Walker Bush and Albert Gore Jr. inadvertently produced one of the most memorable races in American political history.

Somehow the eldest boy of an ex-president and a son of a late senator managed not only to survive, but, in the end, exit the race transformed _ one as president-elect, the other an enobled if vanquished warrior.

Florida's exit from this drama _ if the exit has actually occurred _ was less glorious. In the most forgiving of analyses, the Sunshine State revealed the flaws in the way the world's greatest democracy safeguard's that title. Florida _ its citizenry with roots throughout America _ could argue that it was simply a mirror of the country; split too closely for any machine, hand or hanging/dimpled/pregnant chad count to cipher.

Others anchored the problems firmly in the sands of Florida alone; the term "Banana Republic" adorned this view.

It was keeping in character that South Florida had the most heated confrontations during the extended presidential vote count. Months earlier, Cuban-Americans had vowed vengeance after armed federal agents stormed the home of Elian Gonzalez, the 7-year-old Cuban boy, returning him to his father and Castro's Cuba.

When Bush takes the oath of office Jan. 20, he can thank the heavy return of Cuban-American votes to the Republican column for this four-year term. Elian is back in Cuba, reportedly doing fine, but many in the Democratic administration that sent him there are looking for work.

If there was a silver lining - or at least some sport - to this electoral cloud, it came in watching the TV pundits, most now closely associated with one political view or another, failing so miserably as they tried to predict and interpret these unscripted events.

Burned so many times as the candidates' fates seemed to rise and fall on the latest surprising legal twist, the pundits were left on the most dramatic night sitting and watching their reporters try to explain a complex and nuanced U.S. Supreme Court ruling even before they had read it. As was usual through this event, more heat than light.

SUBHEAD: The best of times

The irony of the great American political drama was its birth not in crisis, but in the best of times.

Unemployment in America remained at historical lows. Throughout 2000, the Federal Reserve and Alan Greenspan, its chairman, endeavored to slow an economy that had the feel of a runaway train and calm a stock market known for what Greenspan called "irrational exuberance."

By year's end, it appeared the Fed had succeeded; the economy was slowing, most dramatically among the "dot.coms." The Internet companies that had produced so many instant millionaires began producing bankruptcies. Investors, it seems, are demanding profits now not later and their stock values sloped abruptly down.

American troops remained in garrison, though a terrorist attack on the USS Cole killed 17 - a reminder that the Middle East, home of much of the world's oil, remains a fragile and dangerous place. Yet further east, Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Kim Il Jong of North Korea began punching holes in one of the world's last iron curtains.

Without wars or recession to occupy, circuses of varying sorts filled our time in unexpected ways too:

In a Gameboy and Playstation 2 era, stories of a magical British boy, Harry Potter, got the world - including its kids - reading again.

On television, an on-air journeyman with an impish smile, Regis Philbin, transformed evening television - and some men's wardrobes. His show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - relatively easy questions and easy money - seemed to fit with times of plenty.

And in sport, usually the realm of big men, sweat and mud, Tiger Woods, a young man of color from suburban California, pushed aside football, baseball and basketball with a golf season that transfixed the sporting world.

As 2001 looms, purists point out that the Gregorian calendar reckons from the year 1. That means midnight tonight actually marks the real beginning of the next millennium. Should we gird for the problems expected a year ago? Will the U.S. economy finally crash? Can Bush govern with a divided Congress and no clear voter mandate?

Tough questions. Perhaps the pundits know.