AUSTIN, Texas -- Oh 2004, 2004, bird thou never wert. Was it really that horrible a year, or does it only seem that way?

Abu Ghraib, the endless trials anent Kobe Bryant and Scott Peterson, war in Iraq looking worse every day, Howard Dean eliminated over a whoop and a presidential race so devoid of joy that the high point was when the president claimed God speaks through him -- leaving us to contemplate the news that God doesn't know how to pronounce nuclear and has yet to master subject-verb agreement. "Performance enhancing drugs" in baseball. Ray Charles died. Karl Rove is Man of the Year. We're all overweight. Swift Boat Liars win the presidential race for Bush. Then just to round things off nicely, a terrible natural disaster. What a bummer.

But, look at it this way ... the Boston Red Sox won the championship. Eliot Spitzer is scaring the spit out of the insurance industry (check out those year-end bonuses on Wall Street, El). The Greek Olympics went well. Maybe we could end the payola by just having them in Greece every time. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for a record sixth time, a symbolic victory for cancer patients everywhere.

Jon Stewart survived a storm of approval and came out just as sardonic as ever. Richard Clarke showed us all that public servant, class act and bureaucrat can be the same thing.

In other highlights:

-- The Coalition of the Willing was depleted when Hungary, Thailand, Nicaragua, New Zealand, Honduras, Ukraine, Spain, the Philippines, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Poland (so movingly cited by President Bush during one of the debates) all proved less than willing. On the other hand, Tonga is still with us.

-- Texan Jessica Simpson, the one who makes Paris Hilton look like a genius, showed an astonished nation what a Texas intellectual looks like. Upon being introduced to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, she said, "You've done a nice job decorating the White House."

-- The Ukrainians showed us all what people who really care about democracy do when there's cheating at the polls. Bless them for just not standing for it.

-- Media Low Point of the Year: Rush Limbaugh on Abu Ghraib: "I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some steam off?"

-- Emblematic Political Moment of the Year: As the full dimensions of the tidal wave in the Indian Ocean became clear, Bush's staff used the occasion to ... take a few cheap shots at Bill Clinton. Explaining why the president had neither returned to Washington nor even bothered to come out and read a statement of sorrow, The Washington Post reported that one official said: "'The president wanted to be fully briefed on our efforts. He doesn't want to make a symbolic statement about 'We feel your pain.'' Many Bush aides believe Clinton was too quick to head for the cameras and to hold forth on tragedies with his trademark sympathy. 'Actions speak louder than words,' a top Bush aide said."

So for action, the Bushies pledged $15 million to help out, less than half the amount that will be spent on parties for the Bush inauguration.

-- What Were They Thinking? Moment of the Year: Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl. Seriously, who planned that?

-- Dumbest Reaction to Wardrobe Malfunction: FCC decides its job is to censor bad taste on television (got their life's work cut out for them, haven't they?), instead of preventing the truly obscene and dangerous concentration of ownership in the media.

-- Another high point: John Ashcroft (the man whose understanding of the right to dissent is so profound he said, "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve") will be replaced as attorney general by Al (Defining Torture Down) Gonzales.

Gonzales put out the legal memo that says "cruel, inhumane or degrading" treatment does not constitute torture as long as it is not "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death."

Well, friends, the old ball is starting another orbit of the sun, giving us all a chance to do better this time. Let's not blow it, because we sure look like dogmeat after this one.

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.