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The Age Of Clinton: America In The 1990s

Clinton: A President Who Defined his Decade


 Bill Clinton was an extraordinarily talented politician who dominated the 1990s, just as Ronald Reagan dominated the 1980s, and Franklin Roosevelt dominated the 1930s. Not all presidents define their times culturally as well as politically; these three leaders did. And perhaps even more than the 1930s and the 1980s, the 1990s was a time of breathtaking transformation as computers became increasingly networked and portable, taking this revolution viral.

 Trying to understand Clinton without studying the politics, culture, technology and society that shaped him–and which he shaped–is like looking through night vision goggles, even the enhanced ones sharpened by photocathode technology breakthroughs in the late 1990s. You think you see the subject clearly, but you need daylight and peripheral vision to appreciate the landscape fully. This book’s central assumption is that  we can best understand Clinton and the 1990s by overlaying the story of the presidency on the broader story of the decade, viewing the two together, to see what stands out.


Particularly sensitive to the changes taking place, Clinton would describe his primary achievement as “He had to make America work in a new world.” Characteristically for Clinton and his age, this statement sounded more like a challenge partially unfulfilled, than a program fully realized. More concretely, his speechwriter Jeff Shesol says Clinton showed that “Government did not have to be big for it to be a catalyst for positive change in people's lives,” while Clinton’s ideological guru from the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, Al From, says Clinton “saved progressive politics, all over the world, by modernizing it.”


Making America work in this new world would not be easy. Internet-powered computers, Everything Machines that seemed accessible everywhere, intensified the modernization processes buffeting America–and the world–since the industrial revolution. Clinton had one foot planted in the solid world of the past and another in the fluid world of the present. He grew up in the sleepy South, amid the artifacts of America’s 1950s “Howdy Doody” innocence. Towns often featured rumbling trains and corner grocery stores, where “everybody” knew your name, in real life, not in sitcoms. Homes had clunky hi-fis and wooden television consoles; squeaky, sheeny, linoleum kitchen floors and stiff, overstuffed living rooms, often graced with grainy black and white photos in gilded frames of dads who had fought in WWII, The Big One, be they dead or alive.  Schools used Dick and Jane primers instilling good manners and good morals, reinforcing the conventions of Fifties family life, while teaching reading fundamentals. A Coke cost five cents. A gallon of gas cost eighteen cents. A Mr. Potato toy kit cost a dollar.


As the Baby Boom rebels’ torchbearer, Clinton embodied the tumult of the 1960s. Paralleling so many other Baby Boom elites, access to America’s finest schools plunged him into political, cultural, ideological, and moral revolutions. He grew his hair mountain-man-long, along with a beard, encountered the drug culture–whether or not he inhaled–dodged Vietnam, detested racism, idolized Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, relished rock n’roll, roamed sexually, and worked on George McGovern’s anti-war, pro-choice 1972 presidential campaign, with his girlfriend and eventual wife Hillary. By the 1980s, as many of his “Big Chill” peers went Yuppie, he shaved, cut his hair, and donned a suit, impressing many peers by forgoing New York riches and Washington glory to serve the public at home in gritty Arkansas.


He would then preside over what was now a different America during the rollicking 1990s. Wal-Mart hollowed-out small towns, bankrupting Main Streets as big city anonymity and uniformity spread. Airports, downtowns, and shopping malls all started to look like shopping malls filled with nationally-franchised restaurants and stores providing cookie-cutter designs to mass-produce experiences. Homes were larger, studier, sleeker, and fancier, filled with electronic gadgets that increasingly defined their owners, with a growing digital divide between the Mac person and the PC person. Bart and Lisa Simpson, Jerry and Elaine from Seinfeld, Monica and Chandler from Friends had defeated Dick and Jane, mocking moral uplift, encouraging a “whatever” culture of chaos. A can of Coke–or Diet Coke–now cost a dollar.  A gallon of post-energy-crisis gas averaged cost $1.15. Hand-held Nintendo Game Boys debuted at $109.


The Age of Clinton was a time of great wonders and great worries. Defining characters of the time included: Baby Einstein toddlers, Harry Potter fanatics, super-pressured suburban preppies, buff teenage boys, scrungy-wearing high school girls, couch potatoes who were now mouse potatoes, Goths in black, stoned grungers, drifting Gen-Xers, mellow latte sippers, menacing gangsta rappers, scandal-mongering journalists, Angry White Male voters, fire-and-brimstone-evangelists, still-smoldering feminists, indulgent celebrities, Red State conservatives–and Red State divorcees--Blue State cosmopolitans–and Blue State prigs--married homosexuals, famous lesbians, African-American professionals, geeky engineers, billionaire nerds, casually-clad Baby Boomers, slick Wall Street titans, flextiming telecommuters, overextended parents, Deadbeat Dads, single moms, Soccer Moms, Hispanic immigrants, symbolic analysts, Dilbert drones, ever-expanding junk food junkies, ever-better-defined fitness freaks, leisure world retirees, and, in an ever-healthier world with greater longevity, scrawny octogenarians.  Each stereotype represents a different piece of America’s mosaic, circa 1990s.


The Age of Clinton was the Age of Virtual Prosperity, both because the computer revolution helped fuel the boom, and because debate continues over how real the benefits were and for whom. It was an Age of Indulgence, with the excesses often triggering anxiety and guilt. And, with all the nervousness about the amazing changes, it was an Era of Mixed Feelings, when Americans felt confused morally, ideologically, economically, even amid the unambiguous miracles, technologically, medically, democratically, economically, artistically.


Hillary Clinton: Polarizing First Lady in Gossamer Shackles

The First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was also trying to shape American attitudes, albeit less successfully. The apple-cheeked, unnaturally-blonde 45-year-old’s blue eyes reflected the fierce intelligence of the overachiever she always was, while her changing hair styles reflected a new insecurity about just what kind of First Lady the American people–and press–would let her be. Her “politics of meaning” speech in April, 1993, similarly advocating “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring” after the Reagan era’s “selfishness and greed,” elicited sneers in the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere mocking “Saint Hillary.”


This polarizing First Lady discovered that Americans were less open to challenges from what Nancy Reagan called the “white glove pulpit” with its silk handcuffs, than from the bully pulpit with its mandate to be America’s superman. Hillary Clinton’s attempts to share power as “co-president” failed. She was, essentially, fired from her public role as Bill Clinton’s sentry–and backbone. The Whitewater, Travelgate, and presidential pardon and furniture-grabbing scandals in 2001 revealed the thickness of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s private partnership. Still, her popularity grew when most Americans considered her the victim of her husband’s infidelity and when she earned power independently as a senator, rather than commandeering status from her husband.


As substantive as Eleanor Roosevelt, as culturally influential as Jackie Kennedy, as controversial as Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton would become one of the 1990s’ defining icons.

On the Cusp of a Transformational Decade


There was much to celebrate and much to fear on New Year’s Day, 1990. Many of the men and women who would define the 1990s were living their lives, with most seeming quite ordinary.

Rodney King was serving a two-year sentence for stealing $200 from a Los Angeles convenience store. Clarence Thomas was chairing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, awaiting what would be an easy Senate confirmation to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Anita Hill was a freshly-tenured professor at the University of Oklahoma law school. Congressman Newt Gingrich was House Minority Whip, dreaming of a Republican takeover of the Congress–run by the Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Rudy Giuliani remained dumbfounded that the mild-mannered David Dinkins beat him in September, in New York City’s closest mayoral race ever.

In Seattle, Kurt Cobain, a fragile 23-year-old guitarist, was back from an emotionally draining six-week European tour peddling Nirvana’s first album, Bleach. Howard Schultz, the one-time employee who had purchased Starbucks in 1987, was roasting over two billion pounds of coffee annually for 46 stores but had not yet turned a profit. Jeff Bezos, a young computer science major, felt restive working for Bankers Trust Corporation in New York. He wanted to work with computers more directly and creatively.

Larry Page was a 17-year-old high school student in Michigan. His future Google partner, Sergey Brin, was a 16-year-old living in Maryland. In 1979, Brin and his scientist parents had emigrated from Russia, seeking the freedom that Soviet Communism denied Jews. In the summer of 1990, Brin’s father would take Sergey and other students to the Soviet Union on a two-week study tour. Remembering his fear of authority growing up, Sergey would tell his father during the trip: “Thank you for taking us all out of Russia.”


O.J. Simpson, the retired NFL running back, was a celebrity pitchman. Despite his Nice Guy persona, O.J. had been arrested a year earlier on New Year’s Day, for beating his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson–one of eight times the police were called to the home. Timothy McVeigh was an infantry soldier stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. Matthew Shepard was a thirteen-year-old junior high school student in Casper, Wyoming. J.K. Rowling, a former English major, was languishing as a secretary, working at Amnesty International, among other offices. A few months later, stuck on the Manchester train line waiting to get into London, she would start imagining a wizard named Harry Potter.


Monica Lewinsky was a student at Beverly Hills High School, living in the soon-to-be-iconic 90210 Zip Code. Her headmaster would later remember her as a “nice kid and pretty normal young lady.”

Al Gore, the 42-year-old Democratic Senator from Tennessee, was completing the worst year of his life. His six-year-old son had been hit by a car after the Baltimore Orioles’ Opening Day game on April 2, 1989, catapulted thirty feet in the air, and landed badly injured but alive. When accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000, Gore would recall that awful moment to humanize his image while emphasizing the seriousness of his mission.


By contrast, George W. Bush, the president’s 43-year-old eldest son, was finishing a very, very good year. Sober since 1986, in April 1989 Bush finalized a deal that would make him wealthy, satisfied, and famous on his own. His 1.8 percent ownership stake in the Texas Rangers would yield nearly $15 million in profits when Thomas O. Hicks bought the team in 1998. Wielding power privately in his father’s White House, the younger Bush was considering going public in Texas--and would run successfully for governor in 1994.


Over at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the Governor of Arkansas, his First Lady, his only child, and hundreds of peers were enjoying yet another Baby Boomer bonding bash grandiosely called Renaissance Weekend. Bill and Hillary Clinton had attended since 1984. Bill Clinton would recall that during these three-day talk fests “We revealed things about ourselves and learned things about other people that would never have come out under normal circumstances.” Many of the resulting friendships would be the basis of FoB, the Friends of Bill network that would campaign tirelessly in 1992, then populate his eventual administration.


Clinton was already planning a presidential run. He had planned a campaign the last election cycle, only to cancel abruptly, fearing “bimbo eruptions.” He would explain when he announced in October 1991, that he refused “to be part of a generation that celebrates the death of Communism abroad with the loss of the American Dream at home…. Our streets are meaner, our families are broken, our health care is the costliest in the world and we get less for it.” A decade into the Reagan revolution, he saw “No vision, no action. Just neglect, selfishness, and division.”

And in Saudi Arabia, a thirty-two-year old rising Jihadist, Osama bin Laden, heir to a construction fortune, was enjoying a hero’s welcome for his supposed valor in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan.


Liquid Modernity: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”

In 1990, 248.7 million Americans were poised to help make the United States undergo its greatest population growth spurt over the next ten years, with a 13.2 percent increase to 281.4 million. Globally, Hong Kong was still British. Macau was still Portuguese. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union were still united; Germany was still divided, East and West. The “European Union” sounded like a powerful labor organization not the 12-country political and economic alliance that would form in 1993, and grow to 28 members today. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The World Health Organization still listed “homosexuality” as a disease. The most famous Governor Clinton in American history was DeWitt of New York not Bill of Arkansas. And the most famous Hillary in the world was Sir Edmund, who climbed Mount Everest in 1953.


At the start of that transformational, final decade of the twentieth century, Amazon was only a river and a rainforest, Google was only a very big number with lots of zeroes, and “pay, pal” was something you said to someone who owed you money. The World Wide Web sounded like something that might ensnare Spiderman. People knew about “hi fi,” hi fidelity stereos, not Wi Fi.


A Power Book sounded like something from the comics. When we thought of a cell, we thought biology not telephones–which were never smart–while a PDA was an embarrassing Public Display of Affection not a Personal Digital Assistant. Cookies were something you gobbled but wouldn’t disable. Most mail came from the post office not that newfangled Internet.


“Props” were theatrical devices not compliments from “Friends,” who were real, not Joey, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel. People knew about sign language--not “Seinlanguage,” “not that there’s anything wrong with it.” Rent was something you paid not something you saw, while “The View” was something you saw not something you watched. A Playstation was an area for games in a kindergarten. “Law and Order” was a political slogan not a blockbuster TV franchise. What was mocked as a “girl movie” had not yet been upgraded, slightly, depending on who was saying it, to a “chick flick.” When you said “edgy female duo,” you thought “Laverne and Shirley” not “Thelma and Louise.” TMI sounded liked a multinational corporation not a plea for discretion after hearing too much information.


 “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” sounded like a philanderer’s recipe for marital harmony not a military policy. A “Drudge Report” sounded boring not scandalous. “Newt” mostly conjured up thoughts of salamanders, not a Republican, while “Tiger” and “Woods” conjured up fears of dangerous animals in the jungle not on the golf course. There had never been a woman secretary of state, a woman national security adviser, a woman attorney general, a woman senator from New York and no First Lady who had ever used the White House as a launching pad to electoral office. The Dow Jones stock average was at 2753.20, about to quadruple in a decade to over 11,000. America was at peace. And the world seemed to be changing for the better.


What the French expatriate Ted Morgan celebrated as America’s “opportunity quotient” and “anxiety quotient” were both spiking. Out of the ensuing collision of impulses, loyalties, commitments, values, and visions, Americans weaved together the latest chapter in their extraordinary nation’s collective saga. The winners of the Cold War, that prolonged, often excruciating, rarely bloody, power struggle with the Soviet Union, would become the liberators of Kuwait, the pioneers of the Internet Age, the lost souls of the gay Nineties, and, on that awful September day, the victims of Osama bin Laden’s Jihadist delusions.


One of the anomalies of life in 1990s America would be the accelerating pace of change in one of the world’s most stable societies. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recognized the destabilizing impact of capitalism’s perennial reinvention and renewal. By “constantly revolutionizing” the economy, the “whole relations of society” change too, creating “everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” As a result, Marx and Engels argued, tradition, in all its forms, is perpetually threatened with being “swept away.” Anticipating modern America in mid-nineteenth century Europe, they wrote: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Technology and consumerism, both in a state of perpetual update (or obsolescence) and each enveloping in its own way, further accelerated the changes and the disorientation.


Working off that insight, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has identified liquidity as modernity’s defining characteristic. Flexibility, fluidity, immediacy, impulse, individuality, and consumerism all trump solidity, tradition, patience, responsibility, and communalism. Clintonites themselves would realize the value of the liquid-solid, sacred-profane framing, to explain Bill Clinton, his presidency, and the 1990s. While drafting the 1996 State of the Union address, Clinton’s chief speechwriter Michael Waldman, expanding on Clinton’s celebration of this “age of possibility” and “of great challenge and change,” would describe the 1990s as “An era in which things certain seem to melt into air.” In those days when Google was not yet a verb, the speech went through ten drafts before an intern discovered the source. As a result, America’s Democratic President avoided quoting the Communist Manifesto in his State of the Union.


The “End of History” Euphoria – and Distraction

Back in 1980, few Americans would have predicted how many would begin the 1990s happy or confident, let alone victorious. Despite George H.W. Bush’s caution, Houstonians and their fellow Americans were proud of their bloodless Cold War victory. In the great twentieth-century lifestyle war, the Texas-tough Marlboro Man and his domestic-but-chic Martha Stewart wife had defeated Uncle Ivan and his dour Communist spouse. Pumped-up pundits misread the political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s spring 1989 essay, “The End of History” as declaring that ending the Cold War eliminated all of America’s troubles. Fukuyama emphasized the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” But, presciently, he saw the “broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies” and feared ongoing “terrorism and wars of national liberation” rooted in “ethnic and nationalist violence.”


Those concerns, however, were eclipsed by the post-Cold War euphoria, the Texas-size surge in confidence because “we won.” There were no victory parades; it was not that kind of war. There was great faith in the “peace dividend” paying off existentially and not just financially at budget time. The Nineties would be fun, with Web surfing, Rollerblading, Beanie Babies, Pogs, and the Supernintendo Entertainment System, among the decade’s glorious distractions. Yet on September 12, 2001, with New York and Washington still smoldering, millions of Americans would look back on the gay nineties and wonder, what did we do with all that opportunity, why did we fritter away our chances to be great?


Prologue: “Lost in the Funhouse”: How Bill Clinton Invented the Ninetie


1990: Houston: Cowboy Cosmopolitanism and the End of History?

1991: Philadelphia: “You Just Don’t Get It”: From the “New World Order” to Domestic Disorder


1992: Little Rock: “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow”: Bubba, Billary, and the Rise of the Adversarials


1993: Washington, DC: “We Must Care for One Another”: Clinton’s Learning Curve


1994: Seattle: The New Nihilism in the Coffee Capital; and Renewed Republicanism in the Nation’s Capital


1995: Oklahoma City: “Their Legacy Must be our lives”: The Clawback Kid finds Windows of Opportunity


1996: Alphabet City, New York: “Take me or leave me”: Cultural Salvoes from Blue America


1997: Silicon Valley: “Think Different!” The Everyday Wizardry of Everything and Everywhere Machines


1998: Beverly Hills 90210: The Great American Moral Panic


1999: Chicago: Finding Forgiveness in the Church of Oprah


2000: Miami: “The Purpose of Prosperity”: Dilemmas of Multiculturalism and Hedonism in America’s Pleasure Capital


2001: “Let’s Roll”: America the Functional Under attack


Author’s Note on Method and Sources


A Guide to Abbreviations in Notes








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