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As the number of shopping days till Christmas dwindled, the ten magi of the Baker-Hamilton commission told Bush 43 that he had “one last chance” to get Iraq straightened out and suggested that most troops come home within fifteen months. Other surprising figures popped up: The Senate confirmed Defense Secretary-nominee Robert Gates by a vote of 95 to 2 after he said that Saddam Hussein had no 9/11 connection. (The president called Gates the right man to tackle “the emerging threats of the 21st century,” leaving some to wonder where he’d been six years ago.) Hillary Clinton seemed ready to commit 110 percent to a 2008 presidential campaign, planning strategic visits to Iowa and New Hampshire and telling one pol, “I’m really going to go for this.” Meanwhile, her potential rival, Barack Obama (and many Dems’ No. 1 fantasy), gave at a $2,500-a-plate Manhattan charity dinner. The United Nations announced that Kofi Annan’s 14,000-square-foot “firetrap” townhouse would get a $4.3 million upgrade, though deep-sixed U.N. Ambassador John Bolton won’t be around to see it. A new study claimed traffic congestion is costing New York City $13 billion a year, but Mayor Bloomberg declined to propose a tax on the hundreds of thousands of cars that throng Manhattan below 60th Street. Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was ordered to return $11 million to his 104-year-old mother’s estate. Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was auctioned for $807,000, six times the expected sale price. Scientists discovered what one called the equivalent of “five to ten swimming pools of water” on Mars. Anna Wintour threw her size 0 weight behind Aby Rosen’s 31-story tower at 980 Madison. A law was passed that allowed four-legged friends to officially roam free in parks from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. Taco Bell axed green onions from its 99-cent menu after 99 E. coli infections emerged in the tri-state area. And Eliot Spitzer invited Natalie Merchant, alum of upstate rockers 10,000 Maniacs, to play his inauguration on January 1; aides pooh-poohed the idea that it was going to be all about who’s “In My Tribe.” “It’s not going to be the partisan orgy it was twelve years ago,” said one.

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