Americans are used to the occasional political and business scandal, but 2008 produced a bumper crop of embarrassments, with a particular rush as the year drew to a close.

Foul-mouthed Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was secretly taped discussing how he expected to make money by selling Barack Obama’s Senate seat. The boyish governor seems likely to follow the well-beaten path leading straight from the Illinois governor’s office to prison.

Alaskan Sen. Ted Stevens, once named “Alaskan of the Century,” was convicted of falsifying election reports to conceal thousands of dollars worth of home improvements done by an oil services company.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned after a federal investigation linked him to “Client #9” and prostitute Ashley Dupre. It was a pathetic end for Spitzer, who had made a reputation for himself as the white knight of Wall Street.

Former Sen. John Edwards withdrew from the presidential race amid rumors he had fathered the child of his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter. Edwards later admitted to having an affair with Hunter while his wife, who has twice had breast cancer, was in remission.

Kwame Kilpatrick, the youngest mayor in Detroit history, resigned after he was convicted of lying to a grand jury about an affair with one of his assistants.

And, finally, Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann resigned after a lengthy sexual harassment investigation revealed he had an extramarital affair with a 28-year-old staffer.

While the public might already have low expectations of politicians, corporate titans didn’t fare much better in 2008.

A young clerk for a French firm, Jerome Kerviel, somehow gained access to billions of dollars controlled by Societe General, and then lost eight of them – billions, that is. Who was supervising this kid, the world wondered?

Hidden cameras, meanwhile, revealed how executives for the insurance conglomerate AIG received a $150 billion taxpayer bailout, then promptly celebrated by gathering at a lavish California spa.

The king of swindlers, however, was hedgefund manager Bernie Madoff, who had spent the past 20 years conning rich people out of their money to pay off other rich people. In the end, his clients, including many wealthy notables, lost an eye-popping $58 billion.

But fraud-of-the-year honors have to go to the mortgage industry, which basically abandoned lending standards in order to keep selling loans to eager investors who thought they were buying secure investments.

Americans were shocked to learn that some of the biggest banks in the U.S. were giving mortgages to customers without even asking applicants to prove they had incomes, let along down payments.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of loans were made to people who had no realistic way of paying them off. The bad loans were lumped together with good loans, which were sold as packages to investors here and around the world.

The result has become a global economic calamity, which nearly led to the collapse of the U.S. banking system. The effects of this scandal will be felt by Americans long into the future.

Weary Americans can only hope for better in 2009.

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