“I can’t breathe!” cried Eric Garner in an increasingly panicked voice as he was swarmed, choked, and handcuffed by a gaggle of New York police officers. In a scene recorded by an amateur videographer, Garner repeats the phrase eight times before losing consciousness. They were the last words he ever spoke.
Upon hearing them, Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, revised his list of the year’s most memorable utterances. He might have to revise it again as the eulogies for two slain NYPD officers compete for our attention with the sounds from a week earlier—of protesters chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops!”
It’s been that kind of year. Hubris and tribalism begat ugliness. Farce followed tragedy—and the other way around. Through it all, we held midterm elections, but electoral politics often seemed extraneous. The evidence showed that 18-year-old Michael Brown probably did not say, “Don’t shoot” with his hands raised while fleeing. But after a grand jury declined to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot Brown eight times, the young man’s stepfather did tell protesters, “Let’s burn this [expletive] down!” before rioters torched dozens of businesses, police cars, and other vehicles on the city’s West Florissant Avenue.
The stepfather later apologized, explaining that his passions got the best of him. “I was so angry and full of raw emotions,” he said. In 2014, he had a lot of company.
“I hope Roger Ailes dies slow, painful, and soon,” Democratic Party activist Alan Pyke wrote on Twitter about the Fox News president. “The evil that man has done to the American tapestry is unprecedented for an individual.”
Pyke, an economic policy editor for the Center for American Progress’s in-house blog, was reacting to Fox’s coverage of the Ferguson unrest. He later apologized, sort of, but hyperbole had a good year in 2014. Here was MSNBC anchorman Chris Matthews, nine months before the November midterms:
“If only the people who voted in 2010 show up this November, you can kiss all this goodbye,” he said. “You’ll see the beginning of the end to … an historic turn toward full democratic government in this country. ... The goal will be to erase not just Obama from the history books, but any evidence that someone of his background should ever think of being president. It will mean victory for the haters.”
Oh, yes, the elections.
Campaign Trail Gems
Until 2014, Iowa had never elected a woman to statewide political office. It has now. Joni Ernst was languishing in the Republican primary when she ran an ad that began, “I grew up on an Iowa farm castrating hogs, so when I come to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork.” In January, she’ll be a United States senator.
The 2014 campaign dulled the Democrats’ favorite meme—the supposed Republican “war on women.” It was a tactic that doomed Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado, a good man whose one-note campaign tactics earned him the sarcastic sobriquet “Mark Uterus.”
Udall’s fellow Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper, one of the few “purple state” incumbent Democrats re-elected this year, offered a perceptive postmortem on what happened to his party in 2014. “You can argue that government should be smaller or bigger or this or that,” he said. “Either way, it needs to work.”
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York put it this way: “We’re a pro-government party. We have been all along. We can’t run from it. … When government messes up, we can easily lose.”
The most uplifting political quote may have come from Greg Abbott, poised to succeed Rick Perry in Austin. Abbott has been a paraplegic since an oak tree branch fell on him in 1984. “I am living proof,” he said, “that a young man can have his life broken in half and still rise up to be the governor of this great state of Texas.”
What Were They Thinking?
Let’s just say that it’s a good thing the 2016 front-runners have time to hone their games.
“We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.” That was Hillary Rodham Clinton promoting her latest book, the one with the $8 million advance.
“Don’t let anybody tell you that, you know, it’s corporations and businesses that create jobs.” And that’s HRC at an October rally, apparently looking over her shoulder at Elizabeth Warren.
Mrs. Clinton did not corner the market on tone-deafness. Here’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie three days earlier, to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “I gotta tell you the truth. I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage—I really am.”
And Mike Huckabee, another presumed GOP 2016 wannabe, might reconsider this comment: “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea, sometimes, than in the United States.”
“I didn’t call the Islamic State a ‘jayvee’ team,” said Obama. Except that he did. Obfuscation often starts with self-deception, as the president revealed when explaining why airstrikes are a sufficient deterrent to ISIS. “This strategy,” he said, “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Candor often arrives via a Freudian slip, which is what happened when Kansan Sen. Pat Roberts was asked whether he actually lives in his home state. “Every time I get an opponent—I mean, every time I get a chance—I’m home,” he said.
Stupid Is as Stupid Does
MIT professor and Obamacare adviser Jonathan Gruber opined earlier than 2014 that passage of the health care law depended on “the stupidity of the American voter,” but his comments came to light this year, leading to his memorable wood-shedding before House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.
“Are you stupid?” the California congressman asked the academic.
“I don’t think so, no,” Gruber replied.
Global warming activists displayed increasingly less patience in 2014. Gawker writer Adam Weinstein set the standard for intolerance, saying those who express doubts “should face jail. … They should face fines.”
It’s an odd First Amendment conception for a journalist. But then again, even climate change skeptics were dumfounded by how Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller expressed doubts that mankind can alter the Earth’s climate.
“Then why did dinosaurs become extinct?” he said.
Nonetheless, time—and technology—marched on. At least we think so. “Jeff Bezos is opening a retail store and owns a newspaper,” tweeted Box Inc. CEO Aaron Levie. “Turns out everything we thought about the Internet is wrong.”