October
26th 2009
We love the 90s?

Posted under: American history, book reviews, class, Gender, unhappy endings, wankers, women's history

ilove90sWell, I loved them in spite of the stuttering insanity that gripped the mainstream media.  This little reminder is courtesy of Joan Walsh’s recent review of Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes:

It’s always seemed to me no accident that the mainstream media began to lose its market share, its revenues and its respect in those years, when they slighted an embattled president’s worthy if controversial initiatives on Middle East peace, Bosnia, welfare reform, making work pay and building a U.S. social democracy, in favor of gossip about his character, his marriage, his taste in women and even the distinguishing characteristics of the presidential penis.

Against this historical backdrop of childish media snickering, the sharp, accomplished Branch comes off as a naif and even a rube in some of his stories, consistently flummoxed by the enmity among Washington media players, some of them his friends, as they savaged Clinton beyond proportion. He writes, bewildered, about a spate of vicious headlines at the end of 1996: The Times’ Abe Rosenthal accused the Clintons of “giving militant Islam its first beachhead in Bosnia,” while Maureen Dowd dubbed Clinton the trivia-obsessed “President Pothole” and the “Limbo President,” sinking ever lower. For good measure she added: “We pretty much know the Clintons did something wrong in Whitewater,” when in fact, 12 years later, we know no such thing. Wen Ho Lee at least got an apology from the Times; the Clintons are still waiting. (Clark Hoyt, is it too late to take that factual error up with Dowd?)

But it wasn’t just the Times: Branch also lays out Washington Post embarrassments; an Op-Ed by Andrew Sullivan headlined “The Clintons: Not a Flicker of Moral Life”; a declaration by liberal book critic Jonathan Yardley — a friend and neighbor of Branch’s — that he wouldn’t vote for Clinton in 1996 because he was a “buffoon” with a monstrous fault “at the core of his being … He is a man who does not believe in anything.” One of my favorite sections of the book features Hillary Clinton sitting in her kitchen explaining why, no, thank you, she is never going to invite the vicious Sally Quinn into her house — and why should she, given Quinn’s multiple treacherous, class-based takedowns of the Clintons as neighbors, leaders, parents, Americans? (The scenes Branch catches of Hillary in the kitchen — not baking cookies, but having a glass of wine, helping Chelsea with homework and savaging their enemies with intelligence are among my favorite in this book.) You find yourself wishing and hoping Branch could find some Washington pooh-bahs who’d realize they’d been played by the Republicans. Nope. None at all.

Good times, good times.  Yes, it’s that Andrew Sullivan, who as editor of The New Republic fluffed the patently racist The Bell CurveWhat a kidder, to claim that the Clintons hadn’t a “flicker of moral life!”  Hillarious! 

What’s your diagnosis for the origins of Clinton Derangement Syndrome (CDS) that gripped the national news media in the 1990s?  I’ve always chalked it up to a combination of envy of the Clintons’ real achievements combined with class-based ressentiment:  that a kid with a working mother who didn’t know who his real daddy was could become president, and could despite their efforts become the only two-term Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Plus, let’s not forget, his shrill, unnatural, ambitious, monstrous wife–more evidence of his untrustworthiness and weakness, since he couldn’t discipline and control her the way a real man would have. 

ynotmeh

Y not meh? U no love teh kittez, Miz O?

In spite of their anti-royalist and egalitarian rhetoric, Americans appear always to have been much more comfortable with presidents who came from the moneyed ruling class, and with First Ladies who stay happily in their Separate Spheres and who are advocates for uncontroversial good causes (against drugs, for literacy, or for proper nutrition and exercise for children, for example.)  What happened–did the Pails Full of Kittens lobbyists sleep in on the day after the election last year?

19 Comments »

19 Responses to “We love the 90s?”

  1. bc on 26 Oct 2009 at 7:11 am #

    I’d like to defend the Pails Full of Kittens lobbyists. They need to provide for themselves or their families just like everybody else. It’s a surprisingly demanding job, since everyone generally assumes that an empailed kitten is wholly unfit for government work. They’re often working long hours, with little in the way of appreciation, and it shouldn’t surprise us that they found themselves oversleeping (curled up, in a patch of sunlight) on a crucial November morning.

  2. Emma on 26 Oct 2009 at 8:52 am #

    An article re: the Obama presidency in the London Review of Books, w/some interesting thoughts about CDS, if only by inference.

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n20/brom01_.html

    An excerpt, talking about the right-wing’s hijacking of the health care debate with a quick comparison to other moments:

    “By late summer [2009] the mood on the right was reminiscent of the rage against Kennedy in 1962, which passed through November 1963 unchastened, and attained a temporary climax with the nomination of Barry Goldwater as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. It surfaced again in the run-up to the Clinton impeachment in 1996-97; but the fury of that time was allowed to take a detour through sex mania. Given the emotions he was up against, Clinton may have got off lightly.”

  3. Indyanna on 26 Oct 2009 at 8:56 am #

    Beachhead in Bosnia? Wow, the Ottomans were deep in the Balkans a century before Columbus left Spain, and nearing the gates of Vienna when William Penn established Philadelphia almost three centuries later. Militant? Depends, I guess. In truth, Clinton did dither shamefully on Bosnia from 1993 well into 1995, after rightfull condemning the First Bush for the same during his campaign. One of his worst moves, but a beachhead? Poor analysis. And in sum, were we better off in 2000 than eight years before, or after? You Betcha.

  4. Matt L on 26 Oct 2009 at 9:47 am #

    Thanks for the post Historiann. I was not a big Clinton fan, but like Indyanna said, we were better off at the end of his presidency than we were at the beginning, or even right now. He had some flawed policies besides the dithering in Bosnia. Some of the financial deregulation at the root the financial crisis was passed on his watch.

    But the media did not cover those boring financial stories. It was most interested in Trivia. (Cable TV journalists of the world say in unison, “Math is hard!”)(Warning Tangent Ahead) A shield law for journalists and their unnamed sources would be a bad idea. How can we expect the media to use a special privilege like that, when they cannot even do basic reporting on the economy? If the media cant use the first amendment correctly, why do they need a special law?

    BC is right, Its hard work being a pail-kitten lobbyist. (Gosh aren’t they cute?!?)

    I miss the 1990s for different reasons (Nirvana, a certain Honda Hawk Motorcycle, rap was better). Ugh. I’ll rain in the Nostalgia and get back to work. Thanks for the post, and lets hope the Clintons get the apology they deserve.

  5. Indyanna on 26 Oct 2009 at 10:11 am #

    Correction. Penn established Philadelphia almost TWO centuries after Columbus sailed, not three. Would hate to skip right over the very interesting colonial period and go straight to the Early Republic. Historiann would have my head! The _Times_ (r) regrets my error.

  6. Historiann on 26 Oct 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi all–busy day, so no time to hang out. I just want to say that I was never a huge fan of Bill Clinton at the time, but I came to really resent his political enemies and admire the way he managed to survive and thrive anyway. I think his presidency was fatally damaged by the Office of Special Counsel investigations and the impeachment–probably to the detriment of the whole country & not just Bill Clinton.

    I think he was a very good conservative president. I am *not* a conservative, but I can recognize that he was a very good conservative president, and one who stood as a major roadblock to many of the more radical plans afoot in congress from 1995-2001.

  7. Matt L on 26 Oct 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Historiann: I can’t remember where I heard or read this, but someone recently called Eisenhower and Clinton the only two conservative politicians of the post WWII era. (It might have been someone at the NYTimes like David Brooks…)

  8. Historiann on 26 Oct 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    Strange bedfellows. Hey–even stopped clocks (and David Brooks) can be right twice a day! (Or, rather, I might be right twice a day…)

  9. Emma on 26 Oct 2009 at 2:57 pm #

    I think he was a very good conservative president. I am *not* a conservative, but I can recognize that he was a very good conservative president, and one who stood as a major roadblock to many of the more radical plans afoot in congress from 1995-2001.

    As a lesbian who had been in the marine corps, I personally really appreciated his stand for gay rights during and after the ’92 election. Having a President and First Lady who didn’t hate you, and who weren’t afraid of you or afraid of being seen with you, meant quite a lot. YMMV, obviously.

    But I think some of the more liberal bits of Bill Clinton get obscured by various things. Including by failure to recognize that after the ’94 mid-terms, he spent the rest of his presidency playing defense. But, still, he nominated, and managed to appoint, Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the SCt. And if you think that’s not remarkable, think about whether Obama is even going to try to get another woman appointee on the Court much less one with an unabashed history of litigation on behalf of women.

  10. Historiann on 26 Oct 2009 at 3:07 pm #

    Emma–I agree with you: both Ginsburg and Breyer are as left as the court is likely to see in the next several years, unless Obama nominates someone who turns out to surprise us all. I should say that I think it’s probably impossible for anyone to be a truly liberal or progressive president–being a good conservative president is about as good as it will likely get in my lifetime. (Obama could do worse than to be another very good conservative president!)

    The U.S. is more of an empire than a republic, and it always has been, which is why I don’t hold out great hope for a progressive president. (I still think it’s important to have Dems in the office, since they’re not anti-government nihilists and for the most part try to appoint competent people to run the federal bureaucracy.)

    I also appreciate your reminders of the context of DADT and DOMA. You’re right: no one gives Bill Clinton credit for trying right off the bat to desegregate the U.S. military. (That’s what he tried to do, until faced with the backlash led by conservaDems and generals who forced the compromise of “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.”)

    And, thanks for that link (above) earlier–I enjoyed that article.

  11. koshem bos on 26 Oct 2009 at 3:21 pm #

    Despite the discussion above, the issue Walsh discusses is not Bill Clinton. It is what the “liberal” media did to him, the way they abused him, their racial attitude towards him, the the total collapse of our free press to be free and to be a press. Our media in the 90s became a heckling instrument busy kicking a properly elected president, busy electing GW Bush whose two terms brought devastation upon this dear place.

    Joan’s comments also succeed in showing, not on purpose, that our “liberals” are a lynching mob guilty of racism, discrimination, bad mouthing, denigrating, and dismissing the poor, the Southerns and anyone who has a questionable pedigree (according to them). How do we know all the latter? The media was widely supported by The “Liberal.”

  12. Emma on 26 Oct 2009 at 4:13 pm #

    koshem bos,

    From the Bromwich article I linked upthread:

    “Malthus’s doctrine on population and the necessity of many living in adversity, Hazlitt wrote, was a gospel ‘preached to the poor’. Equality in the United States in the early 21st century has become a gospel preached by the liberal elite to a populace who feel they have no stake in equality. Since the Reagan presidency and the dismemberment of the labour unions, America has not known a popular voice against the privilege of the large corporations. Yet without such a voice from below, all the benevolent programmes that can be theorised, lacking the ground note of genuine indignation, have turned into lumbering ‘designs’ espoused by the enlightened for moral reasons that ordinary people can hardly remember.”

    I’m not sufficiently learned to get the Malthus reference, but I think the remainder is a good point and probably part of what you’re talking about.

    Historiann,

    Thanks for the comments. It’s just that whenever I hear Clinton characterized (or dismissed, not that you do) as conservative, I get the same feeling about gay rights I get about women’s rights: passe without ever having been achieved. Scares me.

  13. Aeryl on 26 Oct 2009 at 5:28 pm #

    “Americans appear always to have been much more comfortable with presidents who came from the moneyed ruling class,”

    Just a quibble, but I don’t know if that’s accurate. Americans did elect Bill Clinton twice, and Hillary Clinton did get more votes than Barack Obama in last year’s primary.

    So it seems that Americans were comfortable enough to elect folks from their own class. Now, it is attributable to the media that the American people don’t get the opportunity to vote for more people of humbler beginnings.

    Also, to Clinton’s credit,(and I don’t actually recall this, I was 12, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong), but it seems that the Republicans weren’t totally given over to the obstructionist batshit insane wing of their party in 1992, yet, so the argument could be made, that there would be a benefit in moving to the center. And, that whatever liberal instincts he may have had, were blunted by the loss of Congress in 94.

  14. Kathleen Lowrey on 26 Oct 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    I think Michael Warner’s diagnosis (in _The Trouble with Normal_) of sexual shaming was about right — Clinton was constantly getting shamed in ways women know all too well. He was too fat, too sensitive, too needy. If his “sex scandals” had ever involved the use of force, he probably would have found a lot more support in the crazy American public discourse — that’s how a man has sex, after all! But he was just a squishy creature with visible appetites who liked women. Ugh! How repulsive.

    I agree that he was a good conservative president; policy-wise, I’m no fan of the guy. But the crazy hatred directed at him makes me feel some kind of solidarity anyway; sometimes I think he wasn’t just the “first black president” but the “first woman president”, too, in a funny way.

  15. Kathleen Lowrey on 26 Oct 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    P.S. I don’t see the class thing: wherever he began, by the time he entered the white house he was a rich lawyer dude with a rich lawyer wife.

  16. Comrade PhysioProf on 26 Oct 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    From Blow’s column on Michelle Obama:

    But I will say that she seems particularly suited to these times. She provides a certain authenticity and clarity of self in a time of uncertainty, projecting a casual grace onto a world of amplified anxiety. She has become a powerful symbol of fearlessness, refinement, frugality and frivolity, managing to be both fun and serious simultaneously. She’s genuinely human.

    Regardless of what the fuck that ridiculous glurge could possibly even mean, could Blow be any more transparently pleased that Michelle Obama is playing the “oh, I don’t involve myself in the MANLY MAN ROUGH AND TUMBLE POLITICS stuff” dutiful wife role???

  17. Emma on 26 Oct 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    If his “sex scandals” had ever involved the use of force, he probably would have found a lot more support in the crazy American public discourse — that’s how a man has sex, after all!

    In fact, there was one allegation of rape against Clinton and one allegation of forcible sexual contact.

  18. PorJ on 26 Oct 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    I think he was a very good conservative president. I am *not* a conservative, but I can recognize that he was a very good conservative president.

    Wow. I don’t consider him conservative at all, in terms of much of the legislation he signed or military actions he ordered. I wont go down the list here, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 radically altered one of the most important industries in the United States – I would have rather have had a conservative President who understood that the status quo was preferable to deregulatory madness. Its amazing how descriptive terms can be confusingly conflated with partisan political labels. The 1994 Republican “revolution” and Newt Gingrich were – by any definition – “radical” not “conservative.” Under the guise of restoring some non-existent order they proposed some crazy laws – what’s “conservative” about trying to establish 12 year term-limits on members of Congress? (We already have terms limits: they are called “elections.”) Everytime Clinton pivoted, triangulated, found common cause with Gingrich or sought to out-flank Dole, he moved further towards their lunacy and away from a conservative endorsement of the status quo.

    Ask yourself this: wouldn’t a true conservative have been more obstinate and less amenable to the kinds of changes brought forth from 1993-2001? Look at the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment under Janet Reno and Clinton! How can anybody say those changes were “conservative”? [/rant]

  19. Paul S. on 26 Oct 2009 at 7:32 pm #

    Ironically, conservatives in the 90s were convinced that the media was hopelessly biased toward Bill Clinton (with CNN being the “Clinton News Network”, etc.). Unfortunately, when people say “biased”, they usually mean “doesn’t agree with me”.

    I think that Clinton was more “Progressive” than he gets credit for from a lot of Democrats, but as Emma pointed out he was basically on the defensive for the majority of his presidency with the Republicans in control of Congress. His choice was either compromise or stick to his original principles and become unable to accomplish anything. In those days I was a confirmed Bill Clinton hater (to the extent of half-believing the rumors that he had dozens of people killed to cover up evidence of various criminal activities), so I thought that his being forced to the right was only for the good. I have my doubts about that now.

    I’m not sure how the US is an Empire, except in the sense that all very powerful countries are “empires” almost by necessity.

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