McHistory and Its Discontents

In the opening pages of this big, baggy Cook's tour of the very late 20th century, Haynes Johnson has the misfortune to observe that at the end of the Clinton years, as the United States entered the new millennium, "no new enemies challenged America, certainly none remotely posing the danger of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Tojo, a Ho Chi Minh." It would be churlish to hold Johnson accountable for this threat assessment, which practically anyone could have written right up to the morning of September 11. Fate was cruel when it dealt this book a publication date of October 1, 2001, and Johnson, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and longtime Washington pundit, deserves to be cut a little slack.

But only a little. Instant history is an inherently questionable business. The past isn't a chicken pie that you can pop into the microwave and serve up in three minutes. Like fast food, fast history often starts out tasting great—the delicious narcissism of gazing back at one's own epoch—but later leaves you dissatisfied and vaguely queasy.

The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years is divided thematically into four sections—"Technotimes," "Teletimes," "Scandal Times," and "Millennial Times"—each offering a mix of narrative recapitulation and interviews with contemporary figures, ranging from David Geffen to Susan Carpenter McMillan. In the first, Johnson offers a brief but engrossing account of some of the scientific and technological advances that made the 1990s' boom possible. At one point, he tells the story of two midcentury scientists, Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Lacklider, who formulated theories that laid the foundation for today's technology. Johnson argues that "these two unsung heroes of the computer age" should be remembered not just for their innovative ideas, but for the way their work was embraced and funded by the federal government. Of course, private industry has largely supplanted government as the dominant actor in science and technology. Johnson urges readers to recall that some of the proudest achievements of the Clinton years were rooted in that long-ago time of public-private "common purpose."

This lost unity, the notion that we are living in "an increasingly fragmented culture," becomes the author's chief concern. Gradually the reader sees that Johnson's title is sardonic—that he doesn't think the best of times were really all that swell. Yes, the country was wealthy and at peace, but in his view, a great deal was terribly wrong with America in the Age of Clinton.

The title of the "Teletimes" section stopped me for a second. Far from evoking the '90s, the word feels straight out of the 1960s, a time when tumultuous national events were first televised to large numbers of Americans. This section is devoted to modern America's media culture, but it often struck me that the author, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1966 for his reporting on the civil rights story in Alabama, views the media through the particular lens of his generation. In a long chapter devoted to the O.J. Simpson case, Johnson writes of Simpson: "His marriage to a beautiful young blonde, a familiar golden girl of the Nineties types, draws none of the sneers and hatred and jealousies that mark other interracial celebrity marriages." I've been around since the 1960s, and can't think of a single prominent interracial marriage that drew "sneers and hatred." Does Johnson know the good news that now more than one in 10 California marriages is interracial? Somewhat mysteriously, Carole King, the '70s singer-songwriter, appears more than once in the book as a commentator on the '90s.

At one point, Johnson bemoans the television circus that grew up around the Simpson trial: "Intense competitive pressures among proliferating cable channels scrambling to wrest market share from the traditional networks created increasing demand to broadcast the latest, most sensational newsbreaks as they happen—and the more scandalous and lurid, the better." Here and in a later part of the book about the Clinton impeachment, there's a palpable longing for the days when there were just three networks, a handful of powerful newspapers, no wildly unpredictable Internet, and a sense that the best people—Walter Cronkite, not Jerry Springer—were in control of the media.

Sure, in some ways it would be nice to have that world back, but what Johnson doesn't seem to recognize is that the new media world has a vitality the old one lacked. In one chapter, he recites a list of '90s "media mistakes and excesses" that "brought more discredit" on the profession. But he fails to note that, thanks to all this furious media competition, we now find out about such mistakes far more often than we ever did in the old days.

Like almost all look-back-in-haste histories, this one gradually loses the deliberate, majestic pacing that marks the early chapters, as you feel the author racing toward deadline. Johnson's long rehearsal of the Clinton impeachment is remarkable for its strong partisan slant—Democratic players are always sympathetic, Republicans are not—and for a curious tendency to wallow in the prurient details, a sin that the author justly accuses Kenneth Starr of committing, only to do the same himself (there's an especially bizarre footnote on Linda Tripp's sex life). By the time Johnson is writing about millennial trends and the disputed 2000 presidential election, he's occasionally resorting to quoted newspaper headlines to advance the story.

This is unfortunate, but it's also in the nature of the genre. Instant histories are always rushed and ragged, hostage to their times. America the fragmented? It was true yesterday, and today it isn't.