A FGHANISTAN - The country, the conflict, the casualties overtook Iraq as the war on everyone's mind this year. With the death toll among Americans rising at an alarming rate and the Taliban forces resurgent, a question keeps repeating: How do we win?
B AILOUT - This fall, with America's financial infrastructure crumbling, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. persuaded Congress to appropriate $700 billion to help bail out troubled institutions. So far, $350 billion has been invested or lent to more than two dozen banks and financial institutions. But it's been hard to see positive economic results. Now Congress wants a better accounting before the Treasury spends more.
C ONSTELLATION - It was a roller-coaster year for Baltimore Gas and Electric's parent. Losses and the credit crisis brought the company to the edge of bankruptcy. It's paying Warren E. Buffett major bucks to call off a hastily arranged, bargain-basement merger in favor of billions of bailout euros from nuclear power partner Electricite de France. Mon dieu.
D IXON - Sheila, the mayor of Baltimore, suffered through subpoenas from state prosecutors and questions about a fondness for fur (a coat perhaps?), shopping trips to Chicago, designer shoes and a developer. The investigation that resulted in the mayor acknowledging a past personal relationship hasn't produced much else since those early disclosures in a year of accomplished stewardship at City Hall.
E DSEL - In what may have been the largest public relations misstep in U.S. corporate history, America's Big Three automakers traveled in luxury by corporate jet to Washington this fall to beg for $17 billion in short-term government loans to keep themselves afloat through a promised massive reorganization and downsizing aimed at saving the corporations and the related jobs of more than a million American workers. They eventually got most of the money, but their future is far from certain.
F ORECLOSURES - They were the tip of the subprime mortgage meltdown as thousands upon thousands of homeowners borrowed more than they could afford in the mistaken belief that the housing bubble would never burst. Well, it did, and with devastating consequences for all involved from Main Street to Wall Street. A federal bailout for banks, financial institutions and others ensnared in the scandal has done next to nothing to help. This is the crisis that just won't quit.
G AMBLING - Jackpot for the gaming companies and their legion of lobbyists in Annapolis as Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved the slot machine gambling bill that state lawmakers passed in 2007. Next up: deciding who gets these lucrative licenses.
H ILLARY- Mrs. Clinton was the only first lady ever to seek office when she ran for the U.S. Senate from New York in 2000 and won. In 2008, she wore pantsuits, cried real tears and fought like a tiger during her Democratic presidential primary bid - and came within a hairbreadth of victory. Now the irrepressible Hillary is set to become the next secretary of state.
I MMIGRATION - Nationally, the issue everyone was talking about in 2007 went underground in 2008 - like the 11 million or more people living illegally in the United States. Locally, Frederick County unwisely agreed to deputize some of its officers as immigration cops, while Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold welcomed a federal immigration raid in Annapolis and had threatening words for companies that hire illegal immigrants. But without a comprehensive federal solution, it's doubtful that any of this really helps solve the problem.
J OE - Joes were in headlines this year. There was Joe the plumber, who won 15 minutes of fame for attacking presidential candidate Barack Obama's tax proposal. And there was Joe Flacco, the rookie quarterback who led the Ravens to the NFL playoffs in a remarkable performance under the leadership of coach John Harbaugh, also in his first season with the Ravens. Go Joe!
K RATOVIL - As if Republicans weren't having enough problems, an ugly primary led to the ouster of Eastern Shore Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest and opened the door for Frank M. Kratovil Jr., a little-known prosecutor from Queen Anne's County, to win in a squeaker. A Democrat winning a House seat in a district gerrymandered to be Republican-leaning? GOP candidate Andy Harris sure got Bush-whacked.
L OOSE LIPS - His lawyer claims he didn't do anything wrong, but a U.S. attorney says Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was willing to sell everything, from appointments to boards and commissions to Barack Obama's old Senate seat, if the price was right. Mr. Blagojevich allegedly made pitches for cash, campaign contributions and cushy jobs for himself and his wife during phone conversations recorded by the FBI.
M ICHAEL - He did it. Baltimore's super swimmer Phelps set the gold standard for men's swimming - and Olympic sport - with a record eight gold medals in Beijing. But to do it required an amazing come-from-behind assist from 4x100 freestyle relay teammate Jason Lezak.
N AUGHTY - He was, and not very nice to his wife, when you consider that Gov. Eliot Spitzer's preference for high-priced call girls headlined the New York tabloids. Mr. Spitzer's sexual indiscretions forced him to resign from office but had many on Wall Street delighted to see the former financial fraud prosecutor take a big fall. Ouch.
O BAMALAND - The tall skinny guy with the funny name said "Yes we can!" and millions of young people turned it into a battle cry, then led a nation to astound itself by electing a black man president. Barack Obama re-invented what it meant to be an American and gave hope to people around the world by proving that this is still the land of opportunity.
P ALIN - Just four months ago, few Americans knew her name. Then Sarah Palin, with her folksy charm, cover-girl looks, outspoken conservatism and penchant for verbal miscues, nearly stole the show in the 2008 presidential election. Grown men painted their chests to spell out her name, and she almost single-handedly put Saturday Night Live back on the cultural radar. But now even some fellow conservatives say the Alaska governor was an unfortunate choice for vice presidential nominee, and her political future is murky.
Q UICK - The Long, Hot Summer's Ben Quick was charismatic, ambitious, smart, sexy and just one of the dozens of great performances turned in by Paul Newman, who died in September at age 83 after battling cancer. His acting in classic films such as Cool Hand Luke, The Sting and Hud as well as his philanthropy put him at the top of Hollywood's most admired. He was gone too quick.
R OLLER-COASTER - The price of oil, the essential lubricant of the world economy, took off like a rocket early this year. Gas prices soared to $4 a gallon, forcing some consumers to radically change their lifestyles while airlines and other energy-dependent businesses reduced operations and raised prices. But no sooner had Americans begun to ponder the challenges of expensive energy than an international economic slump sent oil prices plummeting, saving consumers billions but undercutting efforts to fight global warming.
S HOES - They were flying in Baghdad, two, to be exact, and both aimed at President Bush in his last visit there. The insult literally hurled at the soon-to-be-former president was one Iraqi journalist's fit of exasperation over a ruinous war, but it captured the disgust of many who believe the war never should have been started and that the Bush administration's failed policies have left a troubled part of the world more unstable than before.
T AXES - They're going down for the middle class soon, promises President-elect Barack Obama. That should make Joe the plumber happy until he gets his license and starts making more than $250,000 a year. Even then, upper-income Americans may continue to enjoy Bush-era tax cuts a little longer.
U NEQUAL - As millions of moviegoers were reminded this year, California gave America its first high-level, openly gay elected official 30 years ago in Harvey Milk, and the state has led the way on gay rights since. That's why many people were surprised and frustrated at the passage of Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. But gay marriage rights are inevitable as America slowly recognizes gays as full citizens. It will just take a little longer now.
V ERDI - After its production of Verdi's Aida, the Baltimore Opera Company filed for bankruptcy and became the city's first major arts institution to succumb to the deepening financial crisis. When it was forced to cancel previously scheduled productions, its sister arts groups showed their solidarity by pledging to honor BOC tickets at their performances.
W ALL STREET - Investors lost trillions of dollars as stock prices dropped 30 percent to 40 percent in virtually every business sector in the largest market crash since the Great Depression. The decline forced many Americans to cut personal spending or change retirement plans. The crash also slashed the value of college and university endowments and forced cuts in the giving of many nonprofits. The decline was punctuated by news that a single investment adviser, Bernard L. Madoff, had lost an estimated $50 billion in a global Ponzi scheme.
X S - Breaking up is never hard to do for celebrities. While you were glued to the election news or sobbing over your 401(k) statements, here are some of the bigger splits you might have missed: Paul McCartney and Heather Mills' divorce cost the former Beatle $48 million, about $34,000 for each day they were married; Madonna and Guy Ritchie called it quits after eight years, the breakup possibly precipitated by a certain Yankee slugger; and Hugh Hefner, 82, split up with Holly Madison, who was perhaps a tad old for him at age 28 (he went on to date 19-year-old twins). OK, now that you're caught up, you can go back to your regularly scheduled recession.
Y IKES ! - The year ends with two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, still feuding and suspicious of each other as both confront terrorist threats at home. The three-day siege of Mumbai left India reeling and the world ever more anxious about the sophistication of terrorist groups and their methods. Add to that Iran's march toward nuclear independence and how fast its success could translate into a nuclear bomb, and North Korea's wacky dictator, and who wouldn't be fearful?
Z IMBABWE - Robert G. Mugabe, once regarded as a national hero for leading his country to black-majority rule, today presides over a nation brought to its knees by corruption and human rights abuses, a cholera epidemic and inflation measured in the millions of percents. Yet as Zimbabwe teeters on the brink of collapse, there's no sign the aging dictator plans to relinquish his hold on power or attend to his country's humanitarian crisis.