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The Best of Times: America in the Age of Clinton


The Best of Times: America in the Age of Clinton

"The single most defining characteristic of America in the Nineties," writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Johnson, "was an all-consuming preoccupation with scandal." And indeed, in this social history of the decade (a sequel to his chronicle of the Reagan years, SLEEPWALKING THROUGH HISTORY), Johnson argues that Scandal Times could only happen with the cooperative willingness of the participants, the media, and the public's insatiable appetite. And while O. J. and Monica are the crown jewels, receiving the lion's share of pages here, Johnson reminds us that there were plenty more: Susan Smith, Jeffrey Dahmer, JonBenet, Amy Fisher, Clarence Thomas, Tailhook, Lorena Bobbit, Tonya Harding, and even that cross-dressing commentator, Marv Albert. All held the intense, unrelenting interest of the country...until the next scandal broke and the CNN trucks were on the move to slake the thirst of our national short attention span.

"Celebrity has become virtually the most important thing in everybody's life," entertainment mogul David Geffen --- who should know --- tells Johnson. "People are obsessed with famous people. People want to be celebrities more than anything in this world." Hence, the '90s saw a litany of these 15-minute celebrities, known only for their dubious "achievements" that nonetheless jettisoned them into public consciousness but kept them there a bit longer, thanks to the amazing proliferation of media outlets on TV, radio, and the Internet.

Johnson's title, of course, has its own little irony. While turning page after page of scandal --- and feeling slightly dirtier for it by the end of the book --- he also devotes chapters to the amazing advances in science and technology (human genome project, cloning, the Internet) made during the Clinton years, not to mention the economic boom. However, these chapters sometimes come off dry --- like the educational and public service programs that usually run on radio stations at 4 a.m. on Sundays. Who cares about the intricacies of DNA strands when what we really want to know is what size and color of pump shoe does Marv Albert favor?

Holding the narrative of this country's triumphs and foibles together, like one of Dickens' Christmas spirits, is William Jefferson Clinton. "Here is a leader of such talents and complexities, such strengths and weaknesses, that his very successes typify America," Johnson writes of the "real-life Gatsby of our times." And really, could anyone fathom similar revelations about any other president that wouldn't result in his job loss and an extended public stoning? Remember, Clinton's job performance ratings went up in the middle of the whole impeachment proceedings!

Ultimately, though, while THE BEST OF TIMES is quite comprehensive in its factual presentation, Johnson offers little new in the way of observation and analysis that even the most casual of TV viewers doesn't already posses. "The O. J. Simpson trial is about race, sex, celebrity, wealth, power, privilege, and prejudice --- both black and white prejudice," he says. To which most people's response would be "Well, duh." And his dissection of the Lewinsky affair --- while written as a compact primer --- offers little that hasn't already been devoured, save revelations of the even more egregious duplicity of Linda Tripp.

"There are no dark corners left in America," Johnson quotes wry singer/songwriter Don McLean at decade's end, and he's absolutely right. What was in those dark corners has now become family entertainment, be it a slow-speed chase of a White Bronco on TV (with cheering crowds) or the salacious excerpts of the Starr Report. Ultimately, while THE BEST OF TIMES is an all-encompassing social dossier on the Clinton years, it simply comes out too close to the actual events to provide the context it obviously desires, making it a time capsule that's been opened too early, offering little chance for surprise.

Reviewed by Bob Ruggiero on September 3, 2002

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

  • Publication Date: September 3, 2002
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0156027011
  • ISBN-13: 9780156027014