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The 1990s was a decade of extreme change. Shifts in culture, politics, and technology radically altered the way Americans did business, expressed themselves, and thought about their role in the world. At the center of it all was Bill Clinton, the charismatic and flawed baby boomer president, along with his polarizing but increasingly popular wife, Hillary.
Although it was in many ways a Democratic Gilded Age, the 1990s was also a time of great anxiety. The Cold War was over. America was stable and prosperous. Yet Americans felt more unmoored and isolated. This was the era of glitz and grunge, when we relished living in the Republic of Everything even as we feared it might degenerate into the Republic of Nothing. Bill Clinton dominated this era, but his complex legacy has yet to be clearly defined.
Historian Gil Troy examines Clinton's presidency alongside the decade's cultural changes. Taking the '90s year-by-year, Troy shows how the culture of the day shaped the Clintons even as the Clintons shaped it, offering answers to two enduring questions about Bill Clinton's legacy: How did such a talented politician leave Americans thinking he accomplished so little when he actually accomplished so much? And, to what extent was Clinton responsible for the catastrophes of the following decade, specifically 9/11 and the collapse of the housing market?
Even more relevant as we head toward the 2016 election, The Age of Clinton will appeal to readers on both sides of the aisle as it chronicles the wild, transformative decade and the president at its center.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution for the fall of 2015. Originally from Queens, New York, the is the author of ten previous books, including See How They Ran: The Changing Presidential Candidate; Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s; and the award-winning Moynihan's Moment: America's Fight Against Zionism as Racism. A weekly columnist for The Daily Beast, he has offered political commentary on all major TV networks in the United States and Canada. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, and The Wilson Quarterly, among other major media outlets.
Read an Excerpt
The Age of Clinton
America in the 1990s
By Gil Troy
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Gil Troy
All rights reserved.
1990: Houston Cowboy Cosmopolitanism and the End of History?
For a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man's heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over.
— George H. W. Bush, inaugural address, January 20, 1989
On Monday morning, January 1, 1990, the president of the United States and his wife awoke in Suite 271 of the Houstonian, a 22-acre resort in Houston, Texas, that served as their official voting address. The plush setting, with 66,000 square feet of athletic facilities in the shadow of Houston's gleaming office towers, epitomized the city's — and the president's — cowboy cosmopolitanism, mixing Texas pioneers' traditional, hardscrabble, frontier values with the glitzy, gilded, boom-time sensibilities of the Eighties. Charging $12,500 in initiation fees, the swanky spa was where God would live "if he'd been rich," locals joshed. The president's enemies sneered that between his ancestral Kennebunkport, Maine, estate and his years in Washington, America's chief executive was using this $550-a-night hotel address as both tax dodge and subterfuge, helping this Connecticut Yankee aristocrat impersonate a Texan.
December 31 began for George H. W. Bush with a quick flight to San Antonio, to visit soldiers wounded in the invasion of Panama. He had launched Operation Just Cause eleven days earlier to depose the drug-running, election-sabotaging Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. That afternoon, the president golfed at the exclusive Houston Country Club. The game ended ominously with a missed putt.
As the president returned to his hotel suite, Houstonians were planning splashy celebrations to ring in the 1990s. Nearby, the Yellow Rose Carriage Company was offering horse-drawn tours around the Houston Galleria Mall, the gleaming campus of consumption that was one of America's ten largest malls. Modeled after Milan's glass-domed nineteenth-century Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the mall covered 1.6 million square feet, featuring Neiman Marcus as its luxurious anchor, a skating rink, an office tower, and two hotels.
Across town, the Washington Avenue Showbar was hosting its "New Year's Eve Party of the Decade" a "going-away party for Ronnie, Nancy, Ollie, Jim & Tammy, Oprah & Geraldo ... and the other crazies of the '80s." Houstonians were finishing a wild decade. Americans were enjoying an eighty-six-month economic expansion as of January 1990 that the Reaganaut economist Martin Anderson called "the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen." More remarkably, America was winning the Cold War, burying the fundamental assumption that the United States and the USSR would be facing off for centuries. Texan swagger seemed appropriate for the entire country: richer, safer, more confident than anyone would have dared imagine a decade earlier.
Houston We Have Problems
Still, for all the progress, Americans' fantasy that they were free of history and headaches was overblown. The oil glut that helped trigger the Reagan boom nationwide ruined many Texans. Salaries drooped as the crude oil price dropped — from $37.42 per barrel in 1980 to $18.33 in 1989. "The Capital of the Sunbelt" also suffered as Ronald Reagan's budget cuts reduced federal aid to cities by two-thirds, from $37.3 billion in 1980 to $12.1 billion a decade later. With housing prices sagging and jobs disappearing, Houston was troubled.
Desperate and clever, Texans started modernizing. Houston was more than crude cowboys and speculating oilmen. Hosting NASA's Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center, the nation's largest concentration of petrochemical processing plants, and Rice University's sophisticated medical facilities, "Space City" evolved into yet another white-collar urban R and D center. During the decade, Texas grew twice as fast as the rest of the nation.
America's fourth most populous city, with 1.6 million people, Houston was one of its most sprawling, nearly half the size of Rhode Island. Reflecting modern urban America's two great shames, H-Town's poverty rate hit 15 percent in 1990, and crime jumped by as much as 29 percent during the 1980s. The crack epidemic tripled the number of cocaine users nationwide from 1986 to 1989, reinvigorating America's post-1960s crime wave. More than twenty thousand Americans were murdered annually, often in crack-related disputes or frenzies.
President Bush unveiled a $1.2 billion crime package in May 1989. But fear and resignation prowled too many streets. "When people are afraid to walk out of their houses, between sundown and sunup, it's a big problem and to ignore it is a political mistake," recalls Al From, who was challenging fellow Democrats to restore party credibility by fighting crime seriously.
A decade later in 1999, Houston's homicide rate would be down by 63 percent from its peak. Statewide, despite a population that would grow 25 percent, the number of crimes would drop more than 20 percent. Effective policing initiated by Houston's Lee Brown, among others, worked. Brown would become New York's first African American police commissioner in January 1990. Prosperity, an aging population, more police on the streets, more criminals in jail, and, most important, fewer crackheads helped too. More broadly, America's "recivilization" during the 1990s, as the Harvard neuropsychologist Steven Pinker calls it, would reduce the number of violent assaults against the body nationwide, although many feared mounting assaults against the soul.
The wave of Hispanic immigration continued, doubling the number of Hispanics in America from 1990 to 2010, reaching 50 million, 1 in 6 Americans. In absorbing what one demographer would call "an entire Venezuela's worth of Hispanics," America's capacity for diversity expanded exponentially. Jesse Jackson's rainbow rhetoric of the 1980s became a demographic reality of the 1990s nationwide. In 1980, 64 percent of Houston was non-Hispanic white; 19 percent was black; 15 percent was Hispanic. In 1990, only 57 percent was non-Hispanic white, the black percentage was 18 percent while the number of Hispanics grew, now constituting 21 percent of the city's population. Many of those Hispanics also accounted for the 13 percent of Houstonians who were foreign born.
A mass of "illegal" immigrants, ranging from 4.5 million to as high as 13 million people nationwide, posed social, political, and ideological challenges — even if advocates prettified the phenomenon by calling them "undocumented" or "unauthorized." Texas had at least 438,000 illegals in 1990. The number would more than double to over 1 million in 2000.
America in the 1990s would welcome more immigrants than ever. Both the authorized and unauthorized immigrants enriched and enlivened America. Still, a functioning democracy could not have millions of residents living in the shadows. A proud nation could not have the rule of law flouted and its borders violated. Individuals in a democracy could not be marginalized, exploited, abused, and perpetually branded illegal, with the economy addicted to these shadow workers who earned less than citizens for menial jobs.
For all these challenging changes, a charming traditional streak persisted, even in this muggy, traffic-choked, oil refinery–smelly, sprawling, corporate tower–dominated modernist city. Many Houstonians' New Year's Day celebrations would include black-eyed peas, a Southern talisman for good luck, perhaps because the beans swelled when cooked, suggesting expanding horizons for the New Year, perhaps because the humble dish was the rare food marauding Northern troops did not bother seizing during the Civil War.
The president and First Lady had a more pedestrian takeout Chinese dinner by candlelight. "We were the earliest people in bed in America, I think. Nine o'clock, reading in bed," Barbara Bush reported. She and the president hadn't "seen midnight" in forty New Year's eves. In 1980, this big-boned, no-nonsense, matronly woman's down-to-earth Waspy refusal to dye her hair had prompted mean gibes that the fifty-six-year-old George Bush was campaigning with his mother. Now, her authenticity fed her popularity as the antidote to the imperious, nouveau riche Nancy Reagan.
From Cold War to World Peace?
Mrs. Bush deflected questions about her New Year's resolutions by vowing to "give up desserts ... until tonight, maybe." Her husband, who had been outed that Saturday crumbling Butterfinger candy bar bits on his oat bran while standing on the resort's breakfast line, took the question more seriously. His New Year's wish, he said, was "Peace. World peace."
Bush's formulaic answer seemed heartfelt — and suddenly attainable — that magical New Year's Day. The nuclear-tinged Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union itself was ending, smoothly, peacefully, surprisingly quickly. In Prague, 5,450 miles away, the dissident playwright Václav Havel had just been sworn in as Czechoslovakia's ninth president, only eight months after international intervention freed him from prison. Havel ascended following the lightning-fast, student-spurred, forty-one-day "Velvet Revolution." This mustachioed modern prophet promised democratic elections within six months and freed thousands of prisoners, to start the post-Communist healing.
Bush's cautious streak had made him mealy-mouthed throughout 1989. His formidable mother Dorothy Walker Bush had taught him not to gloat. His national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and others doubted the Communist implosion and feared infuriating the Soviets. Scowcroft insisted "The Cold War is not over," two days after Bush's inauguration. The president wanted a "very deliberate" foreign policy: "encouraging, guiding, and managing change without provoking backlash and crackdown." When asked whether the Cold War had ended, the president sputtered: "so I — but if the — in the — I want to try to avoid words like Cold War."
Meteoric progress throughout 1989 compelled a new tone. Bush had interrupted his post-Christmas hunting trip to send a message promising American support for Czechoslovakian democracy. The White House statement said Havel's "astonishing" December 29 election "marks a fitting end to a year of astonishing change in Eastern Europe."
In Moscow, the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the president of the Supreme Soviet, Mikhail Gorbachev, the man most responsible for this peaceful upheaval, was acknowledging 1989 as "the most difficult year of perestroika," his restructuring and reform program. Stores were empty. Workers were mobilizing. Provinces were restive, with ethnic extremists rioting sporadically. Nevertheless, Gorbachev, who had discussed these changes with Bush in Malta in early December, toasted 1989 as "the year of the ending of the cold war" while predicting: "The 1990's promise to become the most fruitful period in the history of civilization."
The giddy crowds popping champagne bottles and launching streamers on Prague's Wenceslas Square, its cobblestones made slick with spilled spirits, to hail Havel, Czechs' long-sought freedom, and this new, bold Soviet leader, had much more to celebrate. On Christmas Day, Romanian rebels had executed their Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu along with his imperious wife Elena. Two weeks before that, Bulgaria's Communist government had approved multiparty elections. Seven weeks earlier, on November 9, 1989, the people of East and West Germany had together dismantled the Berlin Wall, that despised Cold War symbol Reagan had begged Gorbachev to "tear down."
That July, Bush had traveled to Poland and Hungary. In June, the dissident labor Solidarity movement had swept Poland's free elections. In May, Hungary had inched toward lifting the repressive Iron Curtain dividing the free West from the oppressed Communist East by dismantling its 150-mile-long border fence with Austria. "The world is inspired by what is happening here," Bush, finally animated, had gushed in Warsaw.
And eight months before New Year's 1990, the Soviet Union had held free national legislative elections, for the first time in seven decades. Even then, few imagined those would be the final elections of what Reagan had called "The Evil Empire," which would dissolve in December 1991. Had any of these events occurred in isolation, they would have been considered transformative. Together, the cumulative impact was overwhelming.
Bush Inherits Reagan's Horseshoe
President Bush was finishing a very good rookie year. His call for a "kinder, gentler nation" when accepting the Republican nomination in 1988 kindly, gently, chided his boss. Bush repudiated 1960s permissiveness and 1980s greed. Liberalism was listing but many Americans had soured on Reaganite materialism. In one poll, majorities perceived that yuppies, stockbrokers, and drug users were "losing favor" among their peers. The paradoxical package gaining favor included "parents spending more time with children," "being concerned about the less fortunate," "putting one's career first," and "having only the best quality things."
More doer than talker or thinker, Bush would deemphasize rhetoric, ideology, and what he dismissed as "the vision thing." One Bush aide lamented that "the movie actor's White House was the one that was hospitable to new ideas. Not the Yalie's." Raised for stewardship more than leadership, Bush knew where he stood, not where America was heading — or where he wanted to take it. Ultimately, the great bipartisan success of Reagan and the other Cold War presidents in helping Soviet Communism collapse propelled him.
Bush got results. While tiptoeing around Eastern Europe's transition, he bravely tackled the Reagan-era Central American impasse. He brokered a bipartisan accord with the Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright to support the Contra insurgents economically, not militarily, while building up to Nicaragua's elections in April 1990. Again cooperating with Congress, he created the Resolution Trust Corporation to manage the huge costs still menacing the federal budget from the 1980s' Savings and Loan banking crisis. Ultimately, the Sandinistas would lose the free elections and the bank bailouts would stabilize the economy.
After watching him govern, Americans liked this more moderate Republican. "Ronald Reagan left his horseshoe under George Bush's pillow," grumbled David Axelrod, a young Chicago-based Democratic political consultant. The short, sweet, successful Panama invasion reinforced this positive new impression of the once-unpopular president. Bush's first year approval rating of 76 percent competed with John Kennedy's 79 percent and Dwight Eisenhower's 70 percent. "He actually achieved his goals," said Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant. While others compared Bush to Theodore Roosevelt, speaking softly while carrying a big stick, Stone noted that Bush's boldness exorcised "the 'wimp' word ... from the political lexicon forever."
Still, like recurring pains, three problems would haunt the Bush presidency — and the American people throughout the coming decade. The culture wars that began with the youth rebellion of the 1960s and 1970s, then intensified with Reagan's counterrevolution of the 1980s, persisted. Cultural controversies clustered sensitive issues together including race, gender identity, sexual practice, individual morality, and collective confidence in the nation's virtue and future. Similarly, the Reagan-era debate about budget deficits and the welfare state, about tax burdens on the middle class and moral responsibilities to the poor, continued to irritate raw national economic and political nerves. These chronic domestic problems competed with the world's chaos for presidential attention. Ending the Cold War did not eliminate regional conflicts. Some hostile forces once checked by the Soviets now menaced America directly.
A Polluted Public Square?
More cold warrior than culture warrior, George H. W. Bush feared that fights over art, education, sexuality, and ideology would ruin his "kinder, gentler" stewardship. Nevertheless, the tensions persisted. That New Year's Eve 1990, as a twenty-foot lighted Lone Star rose up at midnight alongside Houston's thirty-seven-story Texas Commerce Tower, the soundtrack kids listened to often distressed their parents.
Rap's rise intensified this age-old problem. Perhaps America's most demonized song that New Year's was the lurid, sexually domineering, misogynist "Me So Horny," from 2 Live Crew's album As Nasty As They Wanna Be. This monster crossover hit from the rap charts, peaking at 26 on the more staid Billboard 100, was sold on a record album whose cover warned about the explicit lyrics. Still, legislators in at least sixteen states demanded more specific warnings. Prosecutors in Florida and Alabama were preparing cases against record store owners who sold the album to minors. The album's parent-friendly version, As Clean As They Wanna Be, only sold 200,000 copies in the four months the dirty version sold 1.3 million.
Excerpted from The Age of Clinton by Gil Troy. Copyright © 2015 Gil Troy. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
“Lost in the Funhouse” How Bill Clinton Invented the Nineties
1. 1990: HOUSTON
Cowboy Cosmopolitanism and the End of History?
2. 1991: PHILADELPHIA
“You Just Don’t Get It” From the “New World Order” to Domestic Disorder
3. 1992: LITTLE ROCK
“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” Bubba, Billary, and the Rise of the Adversarials
4. 1993: WASHINGTON, D.C.
“We Must Care for One Another” Clinton’s Learning Curve
5. 1994: SEATTLE
The New Nihilism in the Coffee Capital; and Renewed Republicanism in the Nation’s Capital
6. 1995: OKLAHOMA CITY
“Their Legacy Must Be Our Lives” Th e Claw- Back Kid Finds Windows of Opportunity
7. 1996: ALPHABET CITY, NEW YORK
“Take Me or Leave Me” Cultural Salvoes from Blue America
8. 1997: SILICON VALLEY
“Think Different” The Everyday Wizardry of Everything and Everywhere Machines
9. 1998: BEVERLY HILLS, 90210
The Great American Moral Panic
10. 1999: CHICAGO
Finding Forgiveness in the Church of Oprah
11. 2000: MIAMI
“The Purpose of Prosperity” Dilemmas of Multiculturalism and Hedonism in America’s Pleasure Capital
“Let’s Roll” America the Functional Under Attack
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON METHOD AND SOURCES
A GUIDE TO ABBREVIATIONS IN NOTES