Second acts. Comebacks. Reinventions. Whatever you call them, tales of former greats who've crawled their way back are perhaps the most satisfying and inspiring stories of the season. Because if they can do it, maybe so can we.
Five candidates for Best Second Act of 2010:
Bill and Hillary Clinton: At certain times the 1990s, it would have been hard to find two more reviled politicians. Hillary's raw ambition unhinged conservatives, and they never forgave her for HillaryCare. When Bill strayed, Hillary haters would look you in the eye and ask what choice the poor man had. She was lampooned for everything from her "piano legs" to her statement that Bill was the victim of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy." Which, we came to learn, may have been more true than not.
And Bill. No medieval torture -- no rack, no iron maiden, no cauldron of boiling oil -- could have meted just punishment to the worm who in 1998 had sex in the White House with an intern young enough to be his daughter. The nation reeled. The House impeached. And for 10 years, Slick Willy retreated and recalibrated before resurfacing with a whole new purpose: public service ambassador -- from New Orleans to Haiti to Asia and Africa.
What a difference a decade makes.
In April, Hillary was voted most popular politician in America. After trial by fire in the White House, a stint in the Senate, an aborted presidential bid, and a solid performance as secretary of state, maybe America figured she'd finally earned her stripes.
The nation also had new eyes for old Bubba. A September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed him to be most popular pol in the nation, topping Barack Obama and a parade of GOP heavies from John Boehner to Mike Huckabee to Newt Gingrich.
Lisa Murkowski: If the Alaska lawmaker were a hockey team, we'd be calling her the Miracle on Ice. In November, Murkowski became the first Senate candidate in more than 50 years to win a write-in campaign, defeating tea party favorite Joe Miller by some 10,000 votes (although he's still contesting the election). Murkowski's decision to challenge Miller after her crushing primary loss was gutsy, to say the least. Not only did she lack her party's support -- she bucked the north country's mavericky media maven, Sarah Palin. But it was Murkowski who turned out to be the true maverick. Her dramatic eleventh-hour coup was the story of the midterms.
General Motors: The company is not out of the woods yet, but at least it is back from the dead, posting three straight profitable quarters in 2010. Less than 18 months after receiving a still-controversial $50 billion federal bailout, GM was back on Wall Street in November, its shares selling for over $30 after one of the largest initial public offerings in history. The government still owns 33 percent of the company, but it's received about half of its $50 billion back. While many dealerships were closed and jobs were lost, the Center for Automotive Research said the GM and Chrysler bailouts in fact saved 1.1 million jobs.
Betty White: The 88-year-old Comeback Kid, as CBS News hailed her, proved that age and gender can't keep a good comic down. White, a former "Golden Girl" and saucy Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" of the 1970s, reclaimed the spotlight this year after Snickers featured her in a Super Bowl commercial in which she's sacked by a beefy linebacker. After that, thanks to a Facebook campaign by fans young enough to be her grandchildren, Betty White landed the hottest gig in town: guest host of "Saturday Night Live." Currently, White plays Elka in TV Land's sitcom "Hot in Cleveland." An inspiration to aging Baby Boomers, White is a brilliant reminder that just like you're never too old to fall in love, you're never too old to quit workin' it.
Jerry Brown: All the world loves a guy who never gives up. And that's why Jerry Brown -- California's governor-elect -- makes 2010's list of Greatest Comebacks. When he takes office as in January, at age 72, he will be the country's oldest sitting governor. But if experience counts, he's the guy for the job. Brown has 40 years of public service in offices ranging from Los Angeles Community College trustee to mayor of Oakland to state attorney general to California governor, where he served first in 1975. Chicago columnist Mike Royko gave him the name "Governor Moonbeam," mainly because California was known as the land of fruits and nuts -- ha ha -- and Brown, who had an interest in space, once proposed that California launch a satellite. Back in the day, that was crazy talk. Oh, and Brown didn't have a wife and three kids, but instead dated rock singer Linda Ronstadt.
Not that Brown hasn't known defeat. In 1976, '80, and '92, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination, and in 1982, he lost a bid for Senate.
But in 2010, the planets aligned for old Governor Moonbeam. A strong Republican tide, Meg Whitman's $144 million warchest and a collapsing state economy could not defeat Brown's rock-solid resume.
Out West, Geezers rule for a reason.