According to Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman turned historian, The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years is the story of "an era characterized by accumulation of wealth and self-indulgence," as well as a growing sense on the part of ordinary Americans that "something was wrong with their society." If that has a familiar ring, it may be because Johnson freely acknowledges having taken as his model one of the most influential works of popular history ever written, Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday, a breezy chronicle of life in the Roaring '20s that came out in 1931 and is still in print today.
For all its simplifications and superficiality, Only Yesterday remains a minor masterpiece of journalistic evocationno other book has done so much to shape our view of America in the '20sand The Best of Times shares some of its virtues. Like Allen, Johnson has a sharp eye for the telling vignette, and it was a stroke of near-genius to open his book on the fateful day in the spring of 1997 when Garry Kasparov, the greatest grand master inthe history of chess, was defeated by IBM's chess-playing supercomputer Deep Blue, a barely remembered event that offers a dead-on-target illustration of Johnson's argument that the '90s were characterized by a dangerously arrogant faith in the redemptive power of science and technology.
No less suggestive is his portrait of mass-culture media mogul David Geffen, whom Johnson asked to speculate about what American culture might look like a decade from now: "The future will be so pathetic that the Nineties will look attractive because of it ... Books will be less well written. Television will become even dumber than it is now, and it just seems to get dumber and dumber. And movies will be less good. Every once in a while there will be a terrific movie, and we'll be astounded by it. We'll celebrate the person who makes it because it will be so much rarer than it once was."
Alas, The Best of Times is twice as long as the wonderfully concise Only Yesterday, and unlike Allen, Johnson devotes too much space to too few topicshis discussion of the O.J. Simpson case seems to go on almost as long as the trial did. Obsessed with politics, technology and electronic journalism, he pays little attention to art, be it high or low; indeed, the biggest failing of the book is that Johnson has only a limited interest in the popular culture that sets the tone of postmodern American life. This may be a function of his ageit is suggestive that he turned to such icons of the '60s and '70s as Norman Lear and Carole King to comment on entertainment in the Clinton erabut whatever the reason, it gives the book a dated feel. For the most part, Johnson apparently sees little more to contemporary pop culture than celebrity worship run amok, and it says much about his perspective that he has written a history of America in the '90s in which the word "hip-hop" never appears, though he finds room for two pages about Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, the TV show on which Darva Conger married Rick Rockwell.
What makes The Best of Times worth a close reading is not Johnson's grumpy editorializing but his crisp reportage. Infinitely more compelling than any of his recycled tales of high jinks in the Clinton White House, for example, is the chapter in which he visits a high school in South Central L.A. and chats with a seventeen-year-old boy named John: "He talks about Michael Jordan, the one person he admires most, recalls how Jordan's father was killed, and how Jordan went on from there. 'I think he got values and whatever,' he says. 'I got values, but not really, you know.' Asked to explain, he says, 'Values, but none that mean nothin' to nobody. Probably mean somethin' to me, but the next person don't care.' "
It is in such sharply lit anecdotes that The Best of Times succeeds in telling us something important about what happened to America in the final decade of the twentieth century. "Values and whatever": That is an admirably pithy summing-up of the morally muddled age of Bill Clinton and the ambitious baby boomers who saw in him a living symbol of their own decayed idealism.