I finished reading The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson today. Johnson is perhaps best known these days as one of the historians who regularly provides commentary for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS (along with Michael Beschloss and, until her recent leave-of-absence following a plagiarism scandal, Doris Kearns Goodwin). He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In The Best of Times he presents an overview of the 1990s. The book, which came out in 2001, is very interesting in that it is one of very few books about that decade not written in the light of 11 September 2001. Many commentators since that horrible day have noted that the 1990s seem distant (even though they ended just two years ago), with the concerns of that decade appearing terribly unimportant now that issues of life, death and war have arisen. I don’t know that this is really the case, but there is still something strange about a book whose historical viewpoint is such that the Taliban government merits only one mention — for its infamous destruction of the Buddhist megaliths in Afghanistan — on the book’s second-to-last page.
Reading Johnson’s book, it quickly becomes apparent that he does not have a chronological overview of the events of the 1990s in mind. Instead, his aim is to provide a snapshot of where America stands as the new decade begins. This can be seen by observing Johnson’s treatment of President Bill Clinton, who — despite being named in the book’s title — only is central to a little more than half of The Best of Times. Persons of a more conservative bent might avoid the book because of Clinton’s mention in the title, and perhaps because of the title itself. This would be a mistake. The title that Johnson has chosen is an allusion to the opening sentence of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which begins thusly:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….
The 1990s, for Johnson, are a time of dual nature; they are notable for the extraordinary economic boom in which tremendous wealth was created and unbelievable technological progress was achieved, but they are also amazing for the level of depravity evidenced in the items that rose to the top of popular culture and the scandals that dominated both American public attention and the American political system. No figure better illustrates this dichotomy than President Clinton, a politician of rare ability and a man with uncanny inability to avoid his worst instincts.
In avoiding a chronological retelling of the 1990s, Johnson divides his book into four sections, each devoted to a separate theme that he finds winding through the decade. First is what he calls TechnoTimes. Here Johnson chronicles the rise of the Internet and the figures that shaped it and the new economy. Beginning with the developments in the immediate post-World War II period that laid the foundations for the spectacular technological progress to come in the 1990s, Johnson describes how the United States committed to unprecedented investment in basic research — precisely the kind of research that led, years later, to the connectivity of computers (that formed the precursors of the Internet) and the miniaturization and speeding up of the processor (which led to the personal computer and to Steve Jobs and, finally, to Bill Gates). This is fascinating material, and here Johnson provides a cautionary note: in recent years, funding for basic research has declined. The TechnoTimes section of the book is enriched by the fact that Johnson does not limit himself to covering the Internet; he also delves into he Human Genome Project, a research project that is likely to have immense impact on public health and the pharmaceutical industry in years to come.
Next Johnson moves on to Tele-Times, in which he first delves into the O.J. Simpson trial. What Johnson finds remarkable is the way in which the entire Simpson case captivated the American public, leading to television executives adopting policies of “All O.J., all the time”. This goes on for the more than a year that transpires between the infamous slow-speed chase of the white Bronco to Simpson’s final acquittal, and for Johnson the trial points to some alarming facts about race in America: while a mjaority of whites believe Simpson to be guilty of the murders (as, frankly, do I), a majority of blacks believe him to be innocent. Johnson describes how Simpson’s lawyers embark on a defense based on racially-motivated conspiracy theories on the part of the LAPD, but he also reminds us that the raw material for such theories was easily found — witness Mark Fuhrman’s eventual unmasking as an unrepentant racist. Johnson writes: “Lost in such appeals to racial animosities is the idea that O.J. could be the victim of nefarious police tactics and guilty of the murders with which he’s charged.” (Also interesting is the title to Johnson’s chapter on the Simpson case: “The Trial of the Century, Part One”.) Johnson then explores other implications of Tele-Times, mostly concentrating on the increased corporate presence in the decision-making processes that determine which movies get made, which television shows are aired, and which books are published. Johnson quotes David Geffen: “[Ten years from now] I think we’ll be saddened by how much dumber culture is than it is now….every once in a while there will be a terrific movie, and we’ll be astounded by it. We’ll celebrate the person who makes it because it will be so much rarer than it once was.”
It is in the next section of the book, Scandal Times, that Bill Clinton takes center stage. This part of the book details the amazing effort that a large amount of individuals put into investigating nearly every facet of Clinton’s life, both personal and public, in an effort to discredit him at best and destroy him at worst. I won’t comment at length on this portion of the book, except to say that I found it fascinating and more than a little horrifying. Johnson is incredulous that Clinton — the Governor of a rural state who was known for centrism and dealing with both sides of the political aisle — could inspire such fierce hatreds as he did; but he is also amazed that Clinton would so often bungle his own affairs and end up playing directly into their hands.
The final section of the book is Millennial Times, in which Johnson directly explores the state of America as the new decade begins. This involves a chapter on the disputed election of 2000, a chapter on the bursting of the dot-com bubble, one about the shifting priorities of the younger generation (expectations of quick money-making, disinterest in education except as preparation for work, and complete distrust of public servants and politicians), and a chapter about the changing demographics of the American culture. He also details the stunning ineptitude Clinton displayed in his departure from the Presidency. In this section of the book Johnson points toward the problems that he sees are likely to confront America in the future. If this section of the book feels inadequate, it is because Johnson could not write about what was still in the future when he wrote it: the coming of terrorism and the resumption of Middle Eastern hostilities, the two forces combining to make war a reality for the new President and the new decade.
The structure that Johnson has chosen for his book makes for fascinating reading, although the book does at times feel like an unfinished portrait of America in the 1990s. A number of the seminal events of the Clinton years are either unmentioned or only mentioned in passing: the Waco debacle, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, the military disaster in Somalia, the war in Kosovo, and others. I suspect that these events are left uncovered because they do not factor into Johnson’s larger analysis of the forces at work in the new decade; Johnson is, after all, not looking to fit every event of the 1990s into some larger framework but rather looking to paint, with a broad brush, the outlines of what he sees as the American direction as the new decade begins.
This is a very worthy book about a fascinating decade. Incomplete, but fascinating.