Not a funny year. The meltdown kept melting down, the collapsing markets kept collapsing, and the downsizing economy kept downsizing. Texas fared better than most states (see “California, disaster in”), but we weren’t immune. In October, the number of unemployed Texans topped one million. In November, the comptroller’s office announced that decreasing natural gas production, among other things, had caused the Rainy Day Fund to leak $1 billion. At some point we started hearing that we had finally hit bottom, which was great, until we realized that we were now . . . at the bottom. Yippee. The bottom. It was a year in which the top, whatever that is, felt very far away.

How to choose a Bum Steer of the Year in such a bummer of a year? We thought we had an answer in February, when U.S. marshals raided the Houston headquarters of Stanford Financial, the house-of-cards money-management firm of the knight from Mexia, Sir Allen Stanford. He spent two days holed up at a girlfriend’s house while we rubbed our hands together, imagining his pugnacious mug frowning out from our January cover. But then he surfaced, and as the story unfolded of his “massive ongoing fraud,” as the Securities and Exchange Commission put it (with gusto!), we began to worry. Ridiculous as his “outside wives,” gold helicopter, and fake British snobbery were, Stanford turned out to be more villain than clown. The sins were too serious. The victims too aggrieved. He didn’t make you want to laugh; he made you want to punch him in the face.

But not to worry. The year was young. Another candidate would come along. Sure enough, on tax day, with tea partiers making merry all around him, Governor Rick Perry obliged, hinting strongly—though erroneously—that if the federal government didn’t watch out, the State of Texas might just have to see about seceding from the union. Visions of the governor storming Washington immediately began to dance before our eyes. There would be pitchforks! There would be torches! Someone would be riding a mule! But this one wouldn’t stay funny either. Next thing we knew, Perry was tied up in a controversy about the possible execution of an innocent man. Not a lot of yuks there. Then he was proclaiming that the president was “hell-bent toward taking America towards a socialist country.” It didn’t make you want to laugh; it made you want to cry.

Meanwhile, a dark horse had entered the race. On September 21, before a television audience of 17.5 million viewers, former House majority leader Tom DeLay pranced into our plans as a contestant on season nine of Dancing With the Stars. Unlike our previous contenders, the Hammer got off to a slow start. The fact that he had made a calculated decision to appear on ABC’s hit reality show, weighing the probable humiliation against the probable goodwill it would generate, initially hindered his candidacy.

Needless to say, any doubts we had were completely obliterated by the first close-up shot of the DeLay buttocks awkwardly shaking from side to side like two elderly lap dogs fighting under a blanket. Over the next three episodes, the former majority leader showed a surprising passion for ass-shaking. Who knew? Who wanted to know? The response from the judges’ table and the morning talk shows suggested that it was not necessary for us to see any more rump, but DeLay carried on gamely, tossing that thing around whenever he had a chance, putting the bum back in Bum Steers. He also favored the knee slide. And his outfits! In an early Entertainment Tonight interview from the rehearsal studio he explained, “Most of my costumes are going to be really classy and tasteful and reflect the grandfather image rather than the extreme fighter image.” That made sense until he came flouncing onstage for his first cha-cha looking like an extra from Boogie Nights. Goodbye, Grandpa. Hello, Fabulous. When you were done cringing, you had to laugh, and in a year as unfunny as 2009, this was no small feat. Thanks, Tom. We needed that.

Next month

Executive editor Patricia Sharpe eats at the year’s best new restaurants; executive editor Skip Hollandsworth revisits the case of Susan Wright, butcher of the burbs; writer-at-large Jan Reid explores Doug Sahm’s early years in San Antonio; and special correspondent S. C. Gwynne reports from the front lines of a war that’s tearing apart the Episcopal Church.