Trying to understand Bill Clinton’s presidency requires a new toolbox of words and concepts to understand what happened in the 1990s, not just during his presidency. As the first serious history of the Clinton era, my new book The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, tracks some of the key changes of the time, offering some preliminary labels. Bill Clinton liked calling the 1990s a “bridge” to the twenty-first century, but it was more like a runway, with changes accumulating, building momentum, then taking off. At least five significant revolutions and one counterrevolution occurred in the 1990s, which both shaped and were shaped by Clinton’s presidency.
The ongoing Rainbow Revolution made America more diverse demographically and pluralistic ideologically. In a nation long obsessed with race as a black-white dichotomy, the browning of America as Hispanics immigrated en masse, with this broadening spectrum including Asians, had America becoming much less white, but not just black.
With the Digital Revolution accelerating, with technological devices made more powerful, more mobile, and more networked, computers (and many other seemingly miraculous devices) no longer simply extended Americans’ reach but transformed their lives. “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy” creating a new, empowering, human-to-human conversation, Internet enthusiasts insisted. In becoming so connected to technology, some Americans feared disconnecting from tradition and each other.
With desktop computers now ubiquitous, the Internet exploding, finance ever more sophisticated, and manufacturing withering amid global competition, the twenty-first century economy emerged. With this Information Age Reset as the third revolution, the new knowledge-based economy valued special skills, and proved better at generating great wealth than distributing it broadly.
The high-tech revolution also furthered the 1960s’ cultural revolution, putting the anything-goes, all-stimulation-all-the-time media into the palms of Americans’ hands 24/7. The twentieth century was a centrifugal century, propelling Americans away from communal norms toward their own individualistic paths. Alas, all the leisure, all the disposable income, all the indulgence, did not yield happiness and often created the loneliness and distress of affluenza.
On the flip side was Oprah Winfrey’s emergence as America’s mother confessor, agent provocateur, icon of diversity, preacher, teacher, and healer. In this I’m-OK-You’re-OK Contingency Carnival, the fourth revolution, Americans learned to tolerate different behaviors not just different looks and backgrounds. Echoing America’s evangelical past but in diluted form, Oprah’s insurgency in the 1990s, while no Second Great Awakening, was certainly a Well-Marketed Comforting.
Underlying and intensifying these moral and cultural revolutions were revolutions in sex and sexuality. America’s mass Gender Bender led to more public and explicit discussions of sex, the proliferation of Internet porn, more acceptance of what had once been deemed deviant, especially regarding homosexuality, more equality between men and women—and more confusion about sex and sexuality.
Such departures inevitably stirred great anxiety and political pushback. The Republican Resistance tried launching a counterrevolution, in politics, culture, and thought. Conservatives triumphed occasionally, especially winning the Congress in 1994 for the first time in almost half a century and working with Clintonized Democrats to reduce crime and discourage divorce. Yet Republicans not only failed to stop America’s cultural revolution, many were swept along in it too.
The result was a roller-coaster presidency. So many surprises pop up in the Oval Office, the learning curve is so steep, that every presidency is best understood as a play divided into multiple acts, often with dramatic character changes along the way. The Booms and Busts with this presidency, however, were particularly intense. The Clinton presidency’s Act I was Bush League, with amateurish distractions about gays in the military and cabinet appointments. Clinton found his footing and started forging the First Third Way, Act II, with a balanced budget and NAFTA passing within his first year of office. Act III, the Republican Contract on Clinton, built throughout 1994 as health care reform withered, culminating in the Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives in November and the rise of Newt Gingrich’s imperial speakership. With the Oklahoma bombing and the successful reelection campaign, the Nanny Statesman of Act IV emerged, from spring 1995 through the end of 1997, winning welfare reform and reelection. The Lewinsky scandal caused The Lost Year of 1998, Act V, whereupon, remarkably, Clinton concluded with Act VI, his Second Third Way.
Clinton understood America’s confusion and despair. He saw the fallout from the 1960s’ changes even as he celebrated many of them. His Memphis speech, among many other efforts, tried recapturing America’s lost innocence, rooting Americans in some of their traditions and long-standing assumptions, even while preparing them for the extraordinary changes ahead. In this updated, Arkansas-accented yuppie Greek tragedy, Clinton’s great insight, his recognition of these moral challenges and the tangle of pathology linking sexual indulgence, family breakdown, communal decay, and individual distress, could not stop him from making things worse due to his own character flaws. For all his ambition and his triumphs, he also left the nation politically polarized, economically imbalanced, and far too vulnerable to Osama bin Laden’s evil.
The most famous song from Rent, the edgy opera of an age of few illusions, counts out “five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,” asking “How do you measure a year in the life?” This is the historian’s question, wondering what standards to use and from what perspective. Is it the 86,400 seconds in a day, those now-famous half-million minutes in a year, the ten years in a decade? The Age of Clinton examines Bill Clinton’s presidency, emphasizing domestic policy more than foreign policy, in the context of the Nineties’ five-million-plus American minutes. Each chapter chronicles a different year, often focused on a particular moment, to identify key themes. This approach grounds sweeping trends in that mix of the pedestrian and the spectacular that shapes an epoch, and everybody’s life. The intent is neither to demonize nor canonize Clinton but to understand and explain.
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