12 biggest controversies of 2009

A month-by-month review of the clashes, scandals, debates, and disputes that drove opinion in 2009

From President Barack Obama's historic inauguration to Tiger Woods' surreal fall from grace, 2009 has proved to be a tumultuous time in American history. As the year comes to a close, we take a look back at the political controversies, celebrity scandals, and public outrages that most defined the end of this decade.


With the economy teetering on the edge of collapse, the nation's first African-American president is sworn in to office under what many commentators consider the most difficult domestic circumstances since the Great Depression. His skin color continues to provoke debate: While Rush Limbaugh worries that Republicans won't properly oppose the president's "radical" agenda because "they're afraid of being called racists," Robert Schlesinger in U.S. News & World Report counters: "Obama ran as a presidential candidate who was African-American rather than an African-American presidential candidate."

Top tabloid scandal:
A jobless woman gives birth to eight babies; defends the decision even though she already has six other children; insists that her implausible resemblance to Angelina Jolie is plausible. (Watch a report on the financial challenges "Octomom" Nadya Suleman will face raising 14 children)


Just two weeks into his presidency, Obama makes the case that without a massive stimulus bill, the country will face economic "catastrophe." Working together, congressional Democrats and the White House cobble together a $787 billion package that includes tax cuts, more government aid, infrastructure investment, and several programs that Republicans condemn as pork. "As a nation," says Sen. Tom Coburn (R–Okla.), "we got into this mess by spending and investing money that didn't exist. We won't get out of it by doing more of the same." Obama responds, "We can and we must turn this moment of challenge into one of opportunity."

Top tabloid scandal:
A beloved pop star fails to show at the Grammy Awards, after her boyfriend brutally assaults her—belying his "squeaky clean" image. (See a report about Chris Brown's attack on Rihanna)


After the government rescues AIG from bankruptcy with a $180 billion bailout, the insurance giant outrages Americans by lavishing $165 million in bonuses on executives in its financial-products group—the risk-happy division that had taken down the company. The Obama administration, worried that public anger could weaken support for the additional bailouts required to stabilize the economy, denounces AIG and appeals for calm. "There is reason for anger," says David Axelrod, Obama's top advisor, "but we also have to solve the problem."

Top tabloid scandal:
After impregnating the teen daughter of a vice-presidential nominee in 2008, and hastily agreeing to marry her, a strapping hockey player leaves her to pursue a career in soft porn. (Watch a report about Levi Johnston and Bristol Palin's split)


In a surprise decision, the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously rules that banning gay marriage violates the state's Constitution, making Iowa the third state—and the first in the Midwest—to recognize same-sex marriage. That loud noise you just heard, says Joe Sudbay in AmericaBlog, was “heads exploding at Mormon headquarters and the American Family Association.” While conservatives blast the ruling's "gobbledygook" as a "lawless judicial attack on traditional marriage," supporters of gay marriage say the "haters" are just fighting the inevitable.

Top tabloid scandal:
A conservative Christian Miss USA finalist expresses disapproval of gay marriage in competition; later claims that her frankness led to her loss. (View Carrie Prejean's controversial response to Perez Hilton's question)


While liberals praise President Obama's decision to nominate New York federal judge Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, conservatives lambast the nominee for remarking (in 2001) that she, "as a wise Latina woman," can often "reach a better conclusion than a white man." In the ensuing debate, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich call Sotomayor a "racist," while The New York Times' Bob Herbert says that "[apparently] there is no level of achievement sufficient to escape the stultifying bonds of bigotry." On Aug. 6, the Senate confirms Sotomayor by a vote of 68 to 31.

Top tabloid scandal:
The husband-and-wife stars of a family-friendly reality-TV show face allegations that they are exploiting their children on the air and rumors that their marriage is a sham. The wife's unusual haircut is also mocked. (Watch Kate Gosselin's brother and sister-in-law accuse the Gosselins of inappropriate behavior )


Though incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seemingly defeats challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi by a large margin, hundreds of thousands of Iranians—provoked by reports of widespread voting irregularities—take to the streets of Tehran to protest a "stolen" election. Iran authorities fail to block the news from reaching the West when protesters adopt social-networking site Twitter as a news outlet and cell phone video footage of protester Neda Agha-Soltan's murder at the hands of the government floods the Internet.

Top tabloid scandal:
The King of Pop is found dead at 50 from heart failure related to pharmaceutical abuse, triggering allegations that greedy enablers and unethical doctors drugged him to death. (Watch MSNBC cover breaking news of Michael Jackson's death)


Standing in the backyard of her Wasilla home, Sarah Palin abruptly resigns as Alaska's governor before completing her first term, delivering a speech that liberals call "rambling" and incoherent, and even conservatives find hard to defend. Her sudden departure stuns both the political establishment and the media, and spawns at least 11 competing "theories" about her motives. Some columnists suggest that Palin wants to ramp up for a 2012 presidential bid, while others speculate that an imminent scandal led her to resign.

Top tabloid scandal:
Voyeuristic video footage of a popular ESPN correspondent, illegally shot through a hotel peephole, surfaces on the Internet; is obsessively dissected. (View a report about the Erin Andrews incident)


Public debates over health-care reform run into snafus when members of the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations carry out plans to disrupt town hall meetings with noisy demonstrations, taunts, and Second Amendment–protected wielding of AR-15 assault rifles and other weapons. Sarah Palin's charges that "ObamaCare" will lead to "death panels" further fuels the anger. At one point, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank compares a protester whose communication skills he finds lacking to a "dining room table."

Top tabloid scandal:
A former Democratic presidential candidate finally admits to having had an affair in 2006 with his campaign's videographer, validating The National Enquirer's reporting chops. (See a report about John Edwards' "love child")


Many commentators seem genuinely shocked when South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson heckles Obama—shouting, "You lie!"—as the president tries to explain to Congress that his proposed health-care reforms would not provide illegal immigrants with taxpayer-funded coverage. Wilson’s “boorish” behavior “struck a new low” in America’s standard for political conduct, opines USA Today’s editorial board. Although Wilson’s interruption was “rude,” says Robert Costa in National Review, "[his] Southern-fried clarion call for an emboldened scrap with the Left over ObamaCare” may be “the best thing to happen to immigration reform this year.”

Top tabloid story:
A venerated movie director is arrested at a Swiss film festival in connection to a 40-year-old charge of statutory rape. (Watch coverage of Roman Polanski's arrest)


The news that Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just months into his first presidential term confounds nearly everyone, including the president, who remarks: “Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning.” Iain Martin in The Wall Street Journal describes the honor as “bizarre,” noting that, "traditionally, it has been standard procedure that winners of the prize do their peacemaking first." Crooked Timber blogger Maria Farrell defends the decision: "[Obama has] changed how the world feels about America. He’s lifted the planet’s mood. This guy is global Prozac."

Top tabloid scandal:
The nation grinds to a halt as countless TV networks track a silver balloon drifting across the Colorado landscape, supposedly imperiling its young male passenger. Suspense deflates when the boy is found safely back at home. But something is fishy. (Watch "Balloon Boy" inadvertently reveal his parents' hoax)


Soon after the shocking news that an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, has killed 13 and wounded 30 at the nation’s largest military installation, critics begin wondering aloud why the Army and the FBI had missed so many warning signs—including Hasan’s jihadist rants to colleagues. It's bewildering, says Michelle Malkin in her blog, "how all the red flags Hasan raised could have been ignored: Political correctness is the handmaiden of terror." Benjamin Barber in The Huffington Post counters that “political correctness,” though often maligned, remains a worthy ideal because it's based on a "liberal refusal to stereotype."

Top tabloid scandal: Fame-hungry reality-TV hopefuls show up uninvited at Obama’s first state dinner, thoroughly embarrassing the Secret Security and debasing the word "socialite." (See analysis of Tareq and Michaele Salahi's intrusion)


With Obama promising the country that a health-care reform bill would be passed by both houses of Congress before Christmas, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman—an independent whose vote was critical to Democrats—seizes the opportunity to exert his considerable influence and force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to reshape the bill at the 11th hour. The power play sparks outrage among many Democrats: “Lieberman seems primarily motivated by torturing liberals,” said Ezra Klein in The Washington Post. “That is to say, he seems willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in order to settle an old electoral score.” Sen. John McCain admonishes liberals: “No one should question Sen. Lieberman’s integrity or principles.”

Top tabloid scandal:
Gossip reports suggest that one of the world's most renowned and gifted athletes may also be one of the world's worst husbands, prompting him to take an "indefinite" break from sports to focus on "being a better...person." (Watch a report about the consequences of Tiger Woods' infidelity)



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