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Befuddling conventional wisdom 1996 in review: Role reversals helped some, but hurt others.


THIS WAS THE YEAR public figures tried out new roles. Al Gore took a stab at stand-up comedy and dance instruction. Bob Dole campaigned first as a movie critic, then as a supply sider. Bill Clinton played down his role as leader of the Democrats, adopted Republican positions and rhetoric and convincingly extended his run as president another four years.

He had more luck than Mr. Dole, the uncomfortable GOP front-runner. Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes scored victories in early primaries; even in March when Mr. Dole registered a succession of victories, exit polls showed that half of GOP voters wanted someone else. The nation's soccer moms never warmed to his game plan.

To court public sentiment, this long-time deficit hawk turned supply sider, advocating a 15 percent cut in income taxes as the elixir to everlasting economic recovery. After supporting affirmative action as a senator, he opposed it as an ex-senator. At virtually every campaign stop toward the end of the campaign, Mr. Dole complained the nation's major newspapers were ignoring Mr. Clinton's ethical and moral failings. But behind the scenes, Mr. Dole's emissaries, including his wife, pleaded with editors not to run a story that Mr. Dole had had an affair while married to his first wife.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton passively accepted the Republican revolution and re-invented his image. At first, he refused to approve welfare reform, limits on product liability claims, GOP budget plans and prohibitions against late-term abortions. The president agreed with the GOP that the "era of big government is over" and eventually agreed to a sweeping reworking of welfare, ending federal entitlements for the poor. Yet while dismantling New Deal and Great Society programs, Mr. Clinton campaigned as builder of the "bridge to the 21st century."

Ross Perot tried out a new role, too: Instead of spending $60 million of his own money as he did in 1992 to gain 19 percent of the vote, he decided to use public financing. His vote total shrank to nine percent.

Both Congressional Republicans and the weather succeeded in shutting down Washington. While it took ordinary folks only a few days to dig out from under three feet of snow, it took the Republican leadership in Congress and President Clinton six months to dig from under their political posturing and agree on a plan to balance the budget by 2002.

A highly confrontational Republican Congress turned cooperative as the elections drew near. Members must have viewed the movie "Braveheart." When Mel Gibson's film won the Academy Award for best picture in the spring, many House Republicans spoke of themselves as if they were the modern incarnation of William Wallace, the picture's martyred 13th-century Scottish rebel who fought oppressive English rule. But by the time the video of the film was released in late summer, these same Republicans were acting more like Robert the Bruce, the accommodating rebel who lived to become King of Scotland.

President Clinton's problems with Whitewater didn't seem to faze voters, nor did tabloid stories about his political strategist, Dick Morris, carrying on with a Washington prostitute. But there was growing concern over massive foreign contributions to Democratic Party coffers and, in recent weeks, to the president's legal defense fund.

The FBI finally captured the Unabomber and ended an 81-day standoff with Montana tax protesters peacefully. But mishandling of the Olympic bombing tragedy in Atlanta and revelations that an FBI agent was a Russian spy overshadowed those accomplishments. Equally troubling was the administration's inability to satisfactorily explain how 900 FBI files ended up in the White House security office.

Investors predicting an end to the stock market boom were proved wrong. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 1,351 points, or 26 percent, finishing yesterday at 6,549.37. Broadway investors had a banner year, too. Productions there grossed a record $436 million.

In a year when numerous corporations announced layoffs, Aaron Feuerstein, owner of Malden Mills, became a hero by doing the unexpected -- keeping 3,100 workers on the textile company's payroll even after a 1995 Christmas fire destroyed his plant. Now the rebuilt Massachusetts plant is operating, and Malden Mills is posting record sales.

George Burns celebrated his 100th birthday, enabling him to say in all truthfulness that he goes out only with younger women. And then he died. Michael Jackson, who started out the year with a divorce from Lisa Marie Presley, ended it married to the mother of his child, who had first agreed only to be a surrogate but then decided she could play a prominent role in bolstering America's family values.

This was also the year when O.J. Simpson, acquitted of killing his wife, held a black-tie benefit for the Stop the Violence/Increase the Peace Foundation at his Los Angeles home. And in one of the most celebrated unconventional roles of 1996, Binti Jua, a female gorilla in Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, rescued and carefully attended to a 3-year-old boy who fell 18 feet into her enclosure.

Perhaps in 1997, politicians, celebrities and animals will make an effort to keep the rest of the world amused and entertained.

Pub Date: 12/31/96

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