The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Yearsby Haynes Johnson
The Best of Times--the '90s were indeed the best of times. Unprecedented wealth and the breathtaking progress of science and technology ushered in the Internet and the deciphering of the genome. Promises abounded, but a deepening sense of unease hovered over America as the worst of times seemed to be upon us as well-gossip, scandal, and a frenzied media like
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The Best of Times--the '90s were indeed the best of times. Unprecedented wealth and the breathtaking progress of science and technology ushered in the Internet and the deciphering of the genome. Promises abounded, but a deepening sense of unease hovered over America as the worst of times seemed to be upon us as well-gossip, scandal, and a frenzied media like nothing ever seen before.
Based on exclusive interviews with the decade's most influential players, here is a fascinating re-creation of the best and worst episodes of the decade. With sweeping force and cultural acumen, Johnson revives the '90s, the ups and downs, filled with all that we may have forgotten and, most importantly, all that we never knew. In four fascinating parts, Johnson delivers the stories behind the stories-revealing the personalities behind the media party of the '90s, the partisanship that didn't succeed in bringing down the president, the pervasive technology that stretched from Silicon Valley to Monsanto with the corresponding hopes and fears, and the equally extreme reactions on Wall Street to every last bit of it.
A tremendous work from a major authority and writer, The Best of Times covers the entire wonderful yet woeful decade, gavel to gavel.
Includes interviews with:
Book One: Technotimes
Nathan Myhrvold, chief technology guru (former), Microsoft
David Baltimore, president, Cal Tech University and Nobel Prize winner
Bob Shapiro, chief executive officer, Monsanto
Regis McKenna, entrepreneur
Book Two: Teletimes
Ted Harbert, head of TV programming, DreamWorks SKG
Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family"
David Geffen, partner, DreamWorks SKG
Michael Bloomberg, head of Bloomberg News
Steven Brill, founder of Brill's Content
Book Three: Scandal Times
Sam Dash, law professor, Georgetown
Senator Alan K. Simpson (former)
Senator Dale Bumpers (former)
Book Four: Millennial Times
Senator Bob Kerrey (former)
Senator John McCain
Dr. Ruth Faden, medical ethicist
In addition, Johnson interviewed leaders of Congress, top White House aides, cabinet members, and prominent political operatives of both parties in gathering material for this history.
A JAMES H. SILBERMAN BOOK
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.
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Read an Excerpt
"Certainly for displays of overindulgence and tasteless materialism, the Clinton years had few equals in previous decades. Everywhere you looked, yet more signs of extravagance and wealth appeared....Shattered were boundaries of good taste-the term itself had virtually ceased to exist, and with good reason. Cashing in commercially on celebrity, on tragedy, on infamy were so commonplace, so expected, that they barely attracted any notice."
"While the reporter [Douglas A. Blackmon, Wall Street Journal] conceded that 'some of these new American tastes are merely signs of conspicuous consumption in a gluttonous era,' his larger conclusion correctly captured the positive side of the American people and their culture at the millennium: 'Historic levels of wealth, educational attainment and cultural exposure have converged over the past decade in such a way that the lowest common denominator of American culture is rising rapidly. Hardly any place is remote as it once was. Contrary to the wails of many cultural critics, middle-class, mainstream Americans have become, simply put, sophisticated."
First Chapter Excerpt:
Deep (RS/6000 SP) Blue
"I'm a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I'm afraid."
Garry Kasparov wasn't just another great chess player, the master of all grandmasters. By universal agreement, he was the greatest chess player in history. In the spring of 1997, at the age of thirty-four, at the peak of the long boom, he had held his world championship for twelve years. Never once had he lost a multigame match against an individual opponent. Never once had he displayed anything but absolute assurance in his chess genius. His attitude toward any rival bordered on the contemptuous, a trait he displayed again after winning, as expected, the first of six games in his heralded rematch that May in New York against an opponent he had soundly defeated just a year before.
As the match resumed, chess experts who gathered to watch the great champion crush his foe witnessed something so unexpected they were left speechless. They were not alone. Millions of observers intently following the contest over the Internet via worldwide television hookups were astonished to see Kasparov show uncharacteristic signs of confusion. First, he displayed growing doubt, followed by dismay, despair, and loss of control. Finally, he seemed to be having an emotional breakdown. He appeared to be terror stricken.
The first sign that the champion was on the verge of a crack-up came during the second game. It was then that Kasparov encountered something unique in his experience. In the past, he was always able to exploit an opponent's weaknesses by understanding the pattern of thought being employed against him. This time he could not.
That second game ended in a draw. Another draw followed. Then his opponent won a game. When the contestants resumed play on a Saturday, the match was dead even. Kasparov began aggressively, brilliantly; he knew he was winning. His opponent fought back with a series of inspired, indeed brutal, moves that left Kasparov visibly shaken. Grandmasters were shocked to see the champion, for the first time, seem pitiful. He was forced to accept another draw. After a day's break in the match, the denouement came on Monday.
Worldwide attention intensified. Television networks assigned correspondents to cover the event for their lead prime-time broadcasts. Newspapers dispatched top writers, not just their chess analysts, and prepared to open their front pages to report the final results. They and millions more watching on TV and the Internet saw the great Garry Kasparov, the consummate champion whose supreme confidence was matched only by his arrogance, replaced by a nervous, hollowed-out player, his eyes darkened, his manner brooding. He appeared beaten before making his first move.
Kasparov grew even more dispirited as his opponent's swift, ruthless moves drove him into a corner. In a riveting moment captured on television screens, and later on newspaper front pages, after having lost his queen and with his king dangerously exposed to checkmate, the champion leaned forward over the chessboard. He placed his hands over his face and eyes, and lowered his head dejectedly. It became an enduring portrait of human despair.
Moments later Kasparov suddenly stood up. He was resigning the game and match, he announced. Only nineteen moves had been played.
Grandmasters were amazed at the way the champion abruptly crumbled. "It had the impact of a Greek tragedy," said the chairman of the chess committee responsible for officiating the match. Kasparov reacted more simply. "I lost my fighting spirit," he said. "I was not in the mood of playing at all."
Asked to explain why, at a tumultuous news conference minutes later, he replied, "I'm a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I'm afraid."
Kasparov's opponent had no reaction, maintaining the same state as when the battle began: motionless, positioned inside a bare windowless air-conditioned closet, high over the city in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, its immense size and weight all but unattended by any human beings.
The victor was the IBM RS/6000 SP supercomputer, christened by its creators "Deep Blue." This behemoth, whose twin metallic structures were described by one New York Times writer as resembling nothing so much as amplifiers at a rock concert, stood six feet five inches tall. Each of its towers weighed twenty-eight hundred pounds, for a combined weight of over 2 ¾ tons. Internally, its 516 chess microprocessors were capable of examining 200 million chess positions a second, or 50 billion every three minutes, all while operating at a speed 250 times faster than desktop computers.
In the year since Kasparov had first bested Deep Blue, IBM technicians had doubled its capacity. They also conducted near-daily brainstorming sessions with programmers, researchers, and outside chess experts. Their efforts were rewarded by a spectacular success. In the glow of their triumph, Deep Blue's project manager, C. J. Tan, was magnanimous in victory and praised the dejected Kasparov. "Garry has a brilliant mind, and he's a very brave man," Tan said. "He's a man who sees the future, who understands where technology can take us." When asked by reporters why there had been such global interest in the match, Tan replied: "Because it shows what technology can do for man and how far we can take it."
As a news story, the match was a natural: Man versus Machine. Machine wins. As a modern fable, it was fulfillment of an age-old dream. For centuries, scientists and charlatans alike had envisioned the day when machines would beat humans at the intellectually demanding game of chess. After countless failures, that day had come.
Though die-hard chess purists disparaged Deep Blue's victory as nothing more than a highly hyped gimmick, a mechanical game without real significance, it represented something far more important. It was a symbol of the times, a herald of the future.
Copyright © 2000 by Haynes Johnson, published by Harcourt, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce this information, go to our Permissions and Copyright Requests page at http://www.harcourtbooks.com/pol-copyright.html.
This text is from an uncorrected galley of the book and may exhibit differences from the published version. For editorial accuracy and legal protection all quotations and attributions should be checked against the bound copy.
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(Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian, Biographer & Pulitzer Prize Winning Historian)
Meet the Author
Haynes Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the bestsellers Sleepwalking Through History and The Bay of Pigs. He is a regular on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and lives in Washington, D.C.
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