2008: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Looking back, 2008 was truly the best of times and the worst of times. It was a year of extremes; of the highest highs and the lowest lows.

As usual, nature defined loss on an epic scale. An earthquake in China killed 50,000 people in the spring, and a cyclone in Myanmar swept away another 75,000 lives.

Manmade tragedies such as the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, carried their own special sting. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued through another calendar year.

And in the recession-hit United States, people from Wall Street to Main Street were all suffering what William Shakespeare might have called the slings and arrows of an outrageous lost fortune.

President George W. Bush diagnosed the crisis as a hangover when he was caught on tape by a cell phone camera.

"Wall Street got drunk," he said. "It got drunk and, now, it's got a hangover."

Homes, wealth, jobs and confidence were lost. The government bailed out U.S. financial institutions to the tune of $700 billion.

This month, investor Bernard Madoff was accused of the largest fraud in U.S. history.

At least one "chairman of the board" got it right this year. Frank Sinatra wrote, "That's life ... riding high in April, shot down in May." Shot down, like former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a prostitution scandal this year.

"In the past few days, I've begun to atone for my private failings with my wife Silda, my children and my entire family," he said in a March news conference announcing his resignation.

2008's Famous and Infamous Faces

Another politician who was one of the losers of 2008 was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has been accused of attempting to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.

And former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards also admitted to having an affair.

"Two years ago I made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for and no one else," Edwards told ABC News Bob Woodruff." In 2006, I told Elizabeth about the mistake, asked her for her forgiveness, asked God for his forgiveness. And we have kept this within our family since that time."

The eternal value of private lives imploding in public spectacle is that it momentarily takes our minds off our own troubles.

We all witnessed Britney Spears' public struggles in the past few years but, in 2008, surely she gets a nod for surviving and was one of the year's winners.

"In a lot of ways, a good year for Britney Spears," People magazine editor-at-large Jess Cagle said. "She has these music videos that people have responded to. She looks really good."

Vampires were also winners of the year, in books and on the big screen. The film "Twilight," based on the best-seller by Stephenie Meyer, made nearly $140 million at the box office in its first three weeks and made a star out of vampire-playing Robert Pattison.

"Why vampires? They're sexy," Cagle said. "These particular vampires that were marketed to us this year were sort of ... gentlemanly, gentle souls who weren't that threatening to teenage girls. These were good vampires."

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were largely a success for China, "It means everything to China because it was their coming out party," said Bob Garfield, an advertising critic for the magazine Advertising Age. "It was their debutante ball."

The Year in Politics

Everyone will remember swimming superstar Michael Phelps, standing on the podium eight times to receive a gold medal while the Star Spangled Banner played.

But, arguably, the real national anthem this year was the sound of endless presidential campaign ads and candidates' speeches. The oldest democracy in the world pulled out all the stops in '08, reminding everyone that anything is possible in the United States.

Along the way, the campaign made household names out of both Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. But, in the end, there was one winner: Barack Obama.

It was a moment not just about a man but about an idea, a country "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

That idea, first engraved in Washington, was recalled this year in Philadelphia in a speech by then-candidate Obama.

"Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naive as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy, particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own," Obama said. "But what we know -- what we have seen -- is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope -- the audacity to hope -- for what we can and must achieve tomorrow."

After the events of the past year, it would seem that anything is possible in 2009.