1995: The year the future began
So why a book about 1995?
What made that year that special?
Fair questions. And the answers are compelling.
Nineteen-ninety five, the topic of my forthcoming book, was a watershed year — a year of five watersheds, in fact.
It was the year that marked the emergence of the Internet into mainstream consciousness. It was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, an attacked that killed 168 people and signaled a deepening national preoccupation with terrorism. It was the year of the double-murder trial of O.J. Simpson, a months-long ordeal typically called the “Trial of the Century.” It was the year when a U.S.-brokered peace agreement ended the war in Bosnia, Europe’s most vicious conflict since the time of the Nazis. And it was the year when President Bill Clinton began an intermittent sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern 27 years his junior.
The book, titled 1995: The Year the Future Began, turns a fresh lens on those moments and discusses how each of them has projected lasting significance. Each was a watershed moment of a watershed year. The book, then, is more than a revisiting of important events of 1995. It is an examination of how those events live on.
I note in 1995 that “firsts,” alone, do not make a watershed year. But they can be contributing factors, and 1995 was distinguished by a number of notable, first-ever occasions.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average broke the barrier of 5,000 points in 1995. The Dow that year set sixty-nine record-high closings and, overall, was up by 33 percent
The year also brought the first, unequivocal proof of the existence of exoplanets — that planets orbit Sun-like stars beyond Earth’s solar system. Extra-solar planets — or, exoplanets — had long been theorized, and confirmation that such worlds exist represented an essential if tentative step in the long-odds search for extra-solar intelligent life.
The first confirmed exoplanet was a blasted, gaseous world far larger than Jupiter that takes just 4.2 Earth days to orbit its host star in Pegasus, the constellation of the winged horse. The exoplanet — rather inelegantly called “51 Pegasi b” — was detected by two Swiss astronomers, Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz, a 28-year-old doctoral student.
To identify 1995 as a watershed, moreover, is also to say that time has come for a searching reappraisal of the 1990s — to say that time is ripe to confront the caricatures often associated with the decade. The 1990s may still seem recent, but enough time has certainly passed for the decade to be examined critically and with detachment.
Popular views of the 1990s are indeed prone to superficiality, to labeling that reveals very little.
The conservative syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, has from time to time scoffed at the 1990s as a “holiday from history,” an unserious time when the United States ignored the gathering threat posed by Islamic terrorism. Krauthammer’s critique has been aimed principally Clinton, whom he has dismissed as “a president perfectly suited to the time — a time of domesticity, triviality and self-absorption.”
The “best of times” interpretation sees the 1990s through the lens of a booming economy at home and unrivaled power abroad.
But neither “holiday from history” nor “the best of times” is especially accurate or nuanced. They are more like labels.
As I write in 1995, the 1990s were a complex time, a time “when the United States grew hesitantly and fitfully into the role of the world’s lone superpower, when a dazzling new communication technology went from obscurity to near-ubiquity, when a rising tide of democratization abroad reached for a time into once-inhospitable lands.”
The ’90s “were a searching time,” I further write, “rich in promise and in portent. And squarely in the midstream of the decade was its most decisive year.”