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Every year has its major political debates over substantive issues. It also has moments so unexpected or absurd they can't help but stand out amid the sea of scripted speeches and manufactured events. Here are the ones that pulled us up short in 2014:
A Seth Rogen movie caused an international incident
Seth Rogen and James Franco have starred in several movies together: "Pineapple Express." "Knocked Up." "This Is the End." They even got their big break on the same television show ("Freaks and Geeks"). But until "The Interview," no Rogen-Franco joint had ever generated any real controversy — let alone a full-blown international incident involving hackers, cyberterrorism, one of the world's largest movie studios, and two governments who have technically been at war since 1953.
Then again, until "The Interview," no Rogen-Franco joint had ever depicted Kim Jong-un's skull bursting into flames and exploding like one of Gallagher's watermelons.
The fallout has been equal parts tragedy and farce. Kim's dictatorial North Korean regime rattled its proverbial saber, calling the movie "an act of war." A shadowy group named the Guardians of Peace — said by the U.S. to be linked to North Korea — hacked into Sony Pictures' servers, releasing several upcoming films and reams of sensitive corporate and personal information — then threatened Sept. 11-style attacks on cinemas that dared to screen "The Interview." Theater chains bailed; Sony canceled its Christmas release, before backtracking and allowing some independent theaters to show the movie. Aaron Sorkin and George Clooney mounted their soapboxes. Larry Flynt weighed in, too.
Eventually, even President Barack Obama took to his podium to chide Sony for temporarily shelving "a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and 'James Flacco'"—that is, the Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco. Which may have proved, once and for all, that the truth really is stranger than fiction. —Andrew Romano
Michael Grimm threatened a reporter: 'I'll break you in half. Like a boy'
We're sure that over the course of American history, a lot of nasty things have been said under the dome of the U.S. Capitol. But none have captured that peculiar "Paulie Walnuts" quality — that surreally unsettling blend of Mafioso threat and crazy non sequitur — quite like the words that Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) hissed at NY-1 reporter Michael Scotto on Jan. 28, 2014.
The altercation started innocently enough. After President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address, Scotto corralled Grimm, a former FBI agent and Marine from Queens, to ask for his response. But then Scotto tried to squeeze in a follow-up about Grimm's possible campaign-finance violations and the Justice Department's ongoing criminal probe into his affairs. Grimm stormed off camera — before storming back on the second Scotto seemed to throw it back to the studio.
"Let me be clear to you," Grimm growled, getting all up in Scotto's grill. "You ever do that to me again I'll throw you off this f---ing balcony."
"Why?" Scotto replied. "I just wanted to ask you..."
"No, no, you're not man enough," Grimm snapped back. "I'll break you in half. Like a boy."
Grimm eventually apologized for transforming into a "Sopranos" character live on camera. But the strangest part of the incident is that it didn't seem to affect his career. On Nov. 4, Grimm was re-elected to another term serving New York's 11th District — even though he'd already been indicted on 20 counts of fraud a few months earlier. Earlier this week, in fact, the congressman pleaded guilty to a single count of tax evasion and now faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison.
No word yet on how his fellow inmates plan to break him. —Andrew Romano
We started talking about another Bush vs. Clinton race
Until the end of 2014, most people considered it unlikely that Jeb Bush would run for president in 2016.
But with a single Facebook post in December, the former Florida governor made it plain that he’s very serious about a run. Instantly, a rematch of the Bush and Clinton families has become a distinct possibility.
If Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were to become the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, respectively, it would mean that over a nearly 30-year period, two families will have won six of eight presidential elections, and only one person — Barack Obama — would have held the nation’s highest office other than a member of those two families.
A Bush vs. Clinton presidential contest would set up the possibility of nine consecutive presidential elections being captured by one of those two families, over a 36-year period.
If the 2016 election does come down to Jeb versus Hillary, the political class will get used to it and focus on the blow-by-blow of an epic battle. But for a nation founded on resistance to a monarchy, it will be a deeply strange moment, indeed. —Jon Ward
Charlie Crist caused a commotion with a fan
Florida Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat-turned-perennial-loser Charlie Crist nearly thwarted an entire gubernatorial debate against GOP incumbent Rick Scott when he insisted on placing a small electric fan at his feet.
If that sounds ridiculous, it’s because it was, but it did give voters the gift of the most awkward five minutes of political television in 2014.
No one remembers what actually happened during the debate — some would argue that’s a shame — because when Florida television went live to the debate, neither Crist nor Scott were onstage. Moments later, when Crist appeared at the podium alone, moderators told the audience that Scott had accused Crist of violating the terms of the debate by placing the fan at his feet, and that therefore the sitting governor would not participate on principle.
“We have an extremely peculiar situation right now” were the first words Floridians heard when debate coverage opened, from an utterly confused moderator.
"Are we really going to debate about a fan?” Crist later asked the auditorium as Scott’s podium stood empty. “Or are we going to talk about education and the environment and the future of our state? I mean, really."
Scott eventually took the stage, the debate continued, Twitter erupted and Scott held onto the governor’s mansion. Because, Florida. —Meredith Shiner
The Palin family got swept up in an epic brawl
It started out as nothing more than a well-attended birthday party for a competitive snowmobiler on a cool Saturday night last September in Anchorage. But by the end, it was a scene straight out of “Roadhouse,” a drunken, bare-knuckled brawl involving 20 people backed by the soundtrack of a live band that, according to witnesses, never missed a beat amid the surrounding melee.
Police were called, but no charges were filed. And the fight likely would have gone unnoticed had it not been for the people involved: Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 vice presidential candidate turned reality TV star, and members of her family. Suddenly, the political world salivated over every detail of the fracas, from the gleaming white stretch Hummer that delivered the Palin clan to the festivities to the red, white and blue high-tops the woman who was almost elected to the nation’s second-highest office wore as she stood screaming on the sidelines of the fight.
Everybody had a different account of what happened. Palin’s oldest son, Track, told police he got into a fight with men who were insulting one of his sisters. His father, Todd, who also happened to be celebrating his 50th birthday that night, jumped in, ending up with a bloody nose. But other partygoers blamed the Palins — including the former governor’s 24-year-old daughter, Bristol, who allegedly punched a man six or seven times in the face before she was shoved to the ground — for starting the brawl. Bristol, who was visibly drunk, according to the cops, denied the claim and said she was attacked while trying to defend her younger sister, Willow, from rude guests.
After weeks of silence, Sarah Palin finally addressed the scandal in a Facebook post, calling the experience “humiliating and frightening.” “My kids aren’t proud of what happened,” she wrote. But she also slammed the media, accusing them of mocking her daughter after she had “been assaulted by a man.” —Holly Bailey
An Idaho debate proved once again that democracy is a wonderful thing
Congress and statehouses around the country are full of lawyers, but America is full of people who want to have a say in how their communities are run without having to conform or get a J.D. Sometimes, they even get to share the stage with the professional politicians.
That’s what happened in Idaho in May, when incumbent Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter faced three challengers in his primary debate: Russ Fulcher, a state senator; Harley Brown, a former Naval construction commander and public works officer; and Walter Bayes, a homeschooling and anti-abortion advocate and father of 16.
Otter opened by noting how he’d fought the federal government on everything from “wolves and sage grouse to Obamacare and bureaucratic gridlock” while in the governor’s mansion. Fulcher warned of “too much government control in Idaho.” And then Brown and Bayes opened with introductions as marvelous as their Santa Claus-worthy white beards.
"Don’t think I’m crazy. Because I’m not,” said Brown, who wore a leather biker cap and vest sporting the logo of his motorcycle club on its back, along with two cigars sticking out of the front chest pocket of his black shirt.
“I went to jail for homeschooling. … I’ve got 77 descendants,” noted Bayes, who wore 1970s-style wire-rimmed glasses and a beige shirt that closed with snaps.
In a country where the politicians can seem interchangeable, Brown and Bayes served as a reminder of just how much variety there really is. —Garance Franke-Ruta
Chickens became a major issue in a U.S. Senate race
Leave it to Iowa, a major agricultural state, to turn a dispute over chickens in a lakeside residential community into a full-fledged campaign issue garnering national attention and affecting the course of a U.S. Senate race.
Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley never quite knew how to recover from the controversy Republican operatives helped create over Braley’s dispute with his Holiday Lake neighbor over four therapy chickens she kept on her property near Braley’s vacation home.
The Braleys had said they could smell neighbor Pauline Hampton’s free-range chickens, which she used for “animal-assisted therapy” with children, and that birds violated the local homeowners' association guidelines about the keeping of nonpet animals. Hampton eventually penned her hens, but word of the dispute — and a Braley phone call to the homeowners’ association raising the specter of legal action — leaked. Republicans used the anecdote to help paint Braley as out of touch with the culture and values of the farm state and unsympathetic to the concerns of average Iowans.
Nor were the chickens the only famous animals in the race. Braley’s opponent, Republican Joni Ernst, launched her campaign with an advertisement touting her farm state bona fides by announcing, "I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm."
It worked for her: She’s going to be sworn in as the state’s first female congressperson in January. —Garance Franke-Ruta