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Instant Replay: History in the present tense A Commentary on Haynes Johnson’s The Best of Times
Steven M. Gelber
Introduction: Replaying the 1990s.
Sports writers labor under a burden shared by few other journalists; a large percentage of their readers have actually witnessed the event they are reporting. They must, therefore, address two separate audiences. First are those who missed the game and want to read a report of what happened. Second are those who saw the game, probably on television, and want to relive the event, comparing their understanding of the game with that of the sportswriter. Of course, many newspaper readers ignore the sports pages altogether, just as they ignored the games on television in the first place.
Journalist Haynes Johnson’s The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years is a sports report of the 1990s. If you “missed” the decade, Johnson’s book is a painless way to catch up on the major events. If you watched it live on television, or on a computer monitor, The Best of Times provides an opportunity to think again about why the coach called that bonehead play, which even your grandmother knew was a mistake, and blew the game. Finally, if you are like the college students Johnson labels the “millennials,” you paid no attention to the “sport” of politics, and this book will help you realize that while much of politics is indeed a game, “bad calls” from Washington affect us all whether or not we are paying attention to them.
Johnson, a regular on the Public Broadcasting System, is sometimes billed as a historian and he does have a master’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin. In his introduction, however, he likens himself to Frederick Lewis Allen, the journalist whose popular history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, has been a staple in classrooms for seventy years. Following Allen’s lead, Johnson published a history of the Reagan years, Sleepwalking Through History, ten years ago and now follows with a similar effort for this fin de siecle. He knows he is too close to the events to see them clearly, but hopes that his Monday-morning synthesis will make up in immediacy what it lacks in distance.
For the most part Johnson succeeds. The Best of Times may well stay in print, or whatever will be the digital electronic version of print, for the next seventy years, to be used by history teachers who think their students’ education would be incomplete without, among other things, a detailed description of the intimate anatomy of the President of the United States of America. I must admit that even though I teach a course on the history of sex and the family, I still cringe when reading clinical details of the sexuality of the leader of the sole remaining superpower. I cringe, but I read them, and so will generations of future students. And this is a pretty good place to do it; detailed enough to be salaciously interesting, but broad enough not to get lost in the legal labyrinth that began with the investigation of a failed Arkansas real estate deal and ended with a presidential impeachment trial.
The Main Character
Johnson spends almost half the book discussing President Bill Clinton, and appropriately so. Clinton was the story of the Clinton years. Some presidents tread so lightly on the pages of history that they are forgotten almost as soon as they leave office. The first George Bush will almost certainly fall into that category. Others, such as Clinton, leave such large footprints that it is easy to forget that they actually accomplished very little. Great presidents are made by great national and international crises. Clinton’s crises were petty and personal, as were the responses to them by his political opponents. Nevertheless, they were spectacular theater, or to return to my opening metaphor, they were great sport. As with yesterday’s exciting game, it is fun to read a recapitulation of the big plays, and like that game, it is comforting to know that all the fuss and noise, all the cheering and booing, all the perfervid prose of the color commentators was ultimately about nothing terribly important.
It was, as Johnson’s title tells us, “the best of times.” But was it, as his Dickensian allusion implies, also “the worst of times?” Johnson suggests that it was an “age of wisdom;” maybe it was. In any event, it was most assuredly an “age of foolishness,” and it is the foolishness that Johnson uses to give this loosely organized book its coherence. It is, moreover, foolishness that Johnson knows especially well from the inside because it is the foolishness of the media. He is at his best when he is describing the role of both the old and new forms of journalism in creating a world where Clinton’s unexceptional extra-marital activities could lead to an impeachment crisis that will certainly stand as the funniest tempest in a teapot in American history.
The historian in Johnson reminds us that Bill Clinton was hardly the first national chief executive to engage in sexual relations (the president’s finger wagging denials, verbal hair-splitting, and sworn testimony to the contrary notwithstanding) with women other than his wife. He reminds us further that journalists and political opponents also bandied about the indiscretions of Clinton’s predecessors. From Thomas Jefferson’s “Congo harem” to John F. Kennedy’s movie stars and Mafia molls, insiders shared enough risqué tidbits with the press so that only the most naive citizens (who sometimes seem to have been a majority) could equate political leadership with sexual probity. Why then was Clinton different? It was not, argues Johnson, what he did or whom he did it with, but the media-made context in which he did it. Bill Clinton was a victim of print and television journalism turbocharged by the Internet. And it is with the Internet that Johnson opens his story.
Using chess champion Gary Kasparov’s 1997 loss to IBM’s “Deep Blue” as a benchmark in human-computer interaction, Johnson begins his book with a recounting of the background of the Internet. Perhaps the humbling of the world’s greatest chess player by a box of silicon-based switches was a milestone on the road to an unimaginably new human environment, but Johnson asks us to remember that computers have a long way to go in the next century before they change the world as much as steam and electricity did in the last. It may turn out that the twentieth century was less a time of revolutionary technology than a bridge era connecting the industrial revolution built on coal and petroleum to whatever it is digital electronics and biotechnology will ultimately create. If so, then we, in what Johnson calls “the densely packed, flat, unattractive Silicon Valley,” have been the participant-ob-servers to the opening chapter of the next great transition in material culture. We have lived among the equivalent of Robert Fulton and Thomas Edison.
Fulton’s and Edison’s great contributions were not to invent steam power or electrical power, but to harness them in commercially efficient ways. Johnson is careful to note that the same distinction needs to be made about the Internet. Most of the seminal science was done elsewhere, and contrary to our preferred myth, the federal government and universities sponsored most of it because it was interesting or useful, not because of its potential for profit. Johnson’s recounting of the roles of Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider is a valuable reminder that fortunes are made not by those who first grasp an idea, but by those who figure out how to sell it. Chief among these, of course, is Bill Gates who, as though we dry-climate flatlanders need to be reminded, lives in the uncrowded, verdant, and attractive Seattle area.
The chapter on Microsoft is typical of Johnson’s approach to writing the history of a decade whose newspapers have not yet yellowed. It is built around an interview with a high level participant (in this case Nathan Myhrvold) and is fleshed out with information from contemporary journalistic sources and an occasional book. The interviews themselves are easy to read in the style of mass-circulation magazines, punctuated by stage directions intended to give a sense of intimate immediacy. Thus Johnson not only tells us what Myhrvold has to say but also that “he gets up [and] paces a bit,” and “moves toward a nearby glass case containing a mounted switch.”
The interviewee himself is described as “a bouncy, ebullient man, filled with energy and humor,” a “Renaissance man,” and “Microsoft’s resident genius,” who is nevertheless “delightfully modest and self-deprecating.” This is not the interpretive voice of trying very hard to present his subject in the best light. What follows is six pages of Myhrvold’s ruminations on Microsoft’s role in research and the Internet’s role in expanding worldwide access to information, none of which is notably original. Johnson is forced to admit that Myhrvold is not “an infallible wise man” and that a “number of his remarks seem either naïve or wrong.”
The interviews do serve to personalize the history in Johnson’s book. While not biographical, they are extensive enough to reveal the individual’s role in the events of the day and to allow the reader to share a sense of what it is like to be a member of the supporting cast of history. It is when Johnson moves away from the personal and tries to sketch out broader social trends that he sometimes falls flat. This is particularly true in several of the final chapters on the people in general and youth in particular at the end of the century. These fragmented sections lack the immediacy of those built on interviews and often devolve into a recitation of survey findings or a reiteration of the views of Johnson’s two favorite newspaper columnists, Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times. Johnson, in The Best of Times, is not a historian’s historian who digs deep into the primary sources; he is a historian’s journalist who tries to give some historical context to recent events. If, as it is often said, journalists write the first draft of history, then this is the revised first draft, but certainly not the final product. Perhaps that is why the author frequently deviates from the first rule of historical writing: history is the past and should be written about in the past tense. Instead he uses the false present. Thus, both the O. J. Simpson trial and all of the Whitewater/Lewinsky scandals take place “now,” rather than “then.” It seems that Johnson has been ensnared by the very “eyewitness news” mentality he criticizes, loading on superlative modifiers to make every event critical or unique, and presenting them in the pseudo-familiarity of the historical present tense.
Journalism of the Internet and Television
Despite its departure from orthodox historical writing style, The Best of Times does offer a unifying theme that could be used by future academic historians. That is, Bill Clinton was the first major victim of the old journalism of the press and the airwaves driven by the new journalism of the Internet. Johnson does a nice job of tracing the line from the new technology of Licklider to Myhrvold to the new journalism of the O.J. Simpson trial to the mix of the new technology and the new journalism by Matt Drudge to the media circus of Monica and Bill. Because Johnson is so censorious of the new journalism, it is important to note that Clinton might well have suffered the same fate had the Internet never been invented. Newspapers have been the bane of politicians for centuries. Muckraking magazines upset the status quo at the end of the nineteenth century. Radio and movies have not been major players in political crises, but television has been claiming victims since at least 1954 when it exposed the tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy via live coverage of the Army-McCarthy hearings. By taking the events directly to the people in real time, television could eliminate the mediating role of journalists, and consequently their stories, like those of sports writers, would become as much a way to re-experience an event as to learn about it from scratch.
Television has continued to be our real-time link to the great events of the day, from the Watergate hearings to the live coverage of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Progressives like Johnson have generally trusted the American people to be able to make the right decisions when given all the facts, and television has allowed the citizens to be literally eyewitnesses to history. But freedom can lead to license, and Haynes Johnson prefers license when the government more closely controls it. He is not happy with the state of television news and is scathing in his denunciation of the response of stations to FCC deregulation in the Reagan-era. Anyone who watches the BBC World Service or Johnson’s own PBS would probably agree with him that there has been a “dumbing down of the medium, a cheapening of its content, a rush to exploit scandal and spectacle, [and] an unseemly selfishness that made pursuit of profit its highest value.”
However, Johnson the journalist seems to have overlooked what Johnson the historian must know: scandal, spectacle, and profits have often gone hand in hand with better news coverage. At the end of the nineteenth century, well-educated contemporaries savaged the notorious yellow press for its concentration on sex and violence, and for the fact that media barons controlled it. The yellow press was all of these things, but it was also a voice for reform and the interests of the working-class readers attracted by its sex, violence, pictures and funny pages. The real analogs to Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst are not the owners of local TV stations that broadcast helicopter coverage of high speed police chases, but Ted Turner who put together the Cable News Network and showed that there was an audience not only for “all O.J. all the time,” but also for real news and news analysis all the time. CNN set a responsible standard that was copied by the major networks and then transferred by all of them to the Internet, so that those who want news (or weather, or stock quotes) can get them virtually on demand. Gresham’s Law cannot be applied to every situation; the bad does not always drive out the good. Sometimes, as with the original yellow journalism, the bad and the good are woven together by the need for profit. That is what happened in the press, on the air, on cable, and now is happening on the Internet.
The Internet’s peculiar power at the end of the decade lay in the way it combined the immediacy of live television and the massive data transmission of the printing press with the accessibility of a street corner soap box. People could not only have their own virtual presses on which they could publish anything and as much of it as they desired, they also had a means of distributing what they wrote more widely and faster than Pulitzer or Hearst ever dreamed of. Just as the turn-of-the-century “best men” (as they unselfconsciously called themselves) dismissed “muckrakers” and “yellow journalists,” Johnson condemns the unsubstantiated dissemination of rumors about Clinton on the Internet and its use by Congress to make the unbowdlerized text of the Starr Report available to anybody with a modem. He is clearly unhappy that responsible professional journalists were being finessed by rumor mongers like Matt Drudge and political partisans like Newt Gingrich who could, in Johnson’s words, take “the most salacious details ever made public about any political leader in history” and have them “dumped into the ether of cyberspace where it quickly speeds around the world.”
While it is true that almost all of today’s journalists are university trained, professional journalism is a post-war phenomenon. When Johnson criticizes the “woeful journalistic performance” by those who seek the “destruction of reputations through dissemination of false information, or leveling false charges” on the Internet, he is ignoring the not too distant history of his own medium. New and more democratic media create new opportunities for everyone, not just for duly certified historians. Now that anyone can be a publisher, they can also be a historian or a journalist. Perhaps in time we will demand credentials from writers who post information on the web, but in the meantime those of us who disseminate our ideas through older technology are going to have to learn to live with amateur electronic upstarts.
Lamentation on Opportunities Lost
In his book, as in his appearances on television and on the Santa Clara University campus, Haynes Johnson comes across as a charming, well-informed, historically sensitive scold. His message is a liberal’s lamentation on opportunities lost. The Clinton era was that best of times in which we had a chance to finally bring medical insurance to all Americans, to reform the electoral system, to free ourselves from overwhelming dependence on petroleum for energy, and to address other deep structural problems in a non-crisis environment. A young, articulate, immensely likable new president was taking the helm of a prosperous country that had won the cold war, and was, as we kept telling ourselves, the world’s last great superpower. We had become a less prejudiced, more tolerant people confident in the long-term viability of democratic capitalism. It may not have been “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama claimed, but it was a rare moment of supreme triumph and opportunity. Instead of seizing that moment, Johnson spells out how a Republican Congress ignored the nation’s needs while it obsessively maneuvered to bring down the president, and how the president was unable to lead a recalcitrant Congress while he slipped from one melodramatic personal crisis to the next.
Now that moment of opportunity has passed. After the dot com bust, after the September 11 terrorist attacks, after the most undemocratic election since 1876, when the country is being led by a man not elected by the people, but in effect appointed by the Supreme Court, we can only look back at the last decade of the twentieth century in regret. We had fair skies and full bellies and we frittered the moment away. Bill Clinton was the “Arkansas Traveler” in Washington, and like the traveler in the song of that name he saw that the roof was leaking. He pointed out this fact to the fiddle-playing resident who replied: “I couldn’t mend it now, it’s a rainy day.” True enough said the traveler, “But, this, I think, is the thing for you to do. Get busy on a day that is fair and bright. Then patch the old roof ’till it’s good and tight.” “Get along,” said the man, “for you give me a pain. My cabin never leaks when it doesn’t rain.”
It is raining again.