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The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson




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Deja Vu

Books that focus on recent history can be challenging to read. Events are memorable, but remain so recent that it’s too early to gain perspective. Journalism reports events with immediacy, and history describes them through themes and in some context. Journalist Haynes Johnson presents a new book that falls somewhere between journalism and history. The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years describes life in America in the 1990s from a variety of themes: technology revolution; political scandal and market behavior. Johnson is a fine writer, and the 550+ pages of this book keeps the reader turning pages, although the more than 200 pages of scandals became wearying before long. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the long scandal section that captures what Haynes tries to accomplish in this ambitious book:

“Clearly, the scandal era has turned people away from public life. One of the most evident consequences of the scandals that mark the Clinton years is the almost infinite widening of the chasm between the capital and the country. If the purpose of politics and government are really no longer relevant to increasing numbers of Americans, none of this matters. But that, of course, is not the case. If anything, Americans of the new millennium face a host of ever-more-complex issues that are central to the future. Every single one of these will require a public solution, or, at least, a public-private consensus and partnership.
Some of the issues that must be addressed are the consequences of our newest technologies, others are the legacy of older technologies, and still others are as old as life itself. Among those needing to be addressed are the risks and benefits of genetic engineering; the limits society might choose to place on what science is able to do; the availability and allocation of health care; the threat of new plagues like AIDS spreading fearsomely through Africa; the protection of privacy; the role of the media in a free society; the dangers of weapons of mass destruction; disease, overpopulation, and the degradation of the environment; the inequitable distribution of wealth and resources; the tensions between corporate and public interests; the allocation of dwindling and/or renewable natural resources; the role (and quality) of education in a democracy …
Every one of these challenges existed before the scandal era. Consideration of every one of was diverted by the obsession with scandal. It may well be that historians will look back on those times and find the greatest legacy was one of needless neglect of major issues, of drift and diversion and division that postponed serious consideration of serious questions. Certainly, the president’s actions contributed strongly to the public’s failure to address these and other questions. By his conduct Clinton weakened the office of the president, created greater public disillusionment with public officials, and wasted a critical year that might have been spent dealing with problems. Even worse, this neglect occurred at a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity when a second-term president had a rare historical opportunity to provide a significant long-term leadership. That opportunity was squandered.”

Readers may disagree with Johnson’s opinions, but are likely to come away from this book with a sadness that so many of the players during the Clinton years behaved in ways that fell far short of expectations, despite the boom in markets and overall sense of prosperity that dominated the era.

Steve Hopkins, January 2, 2002


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