1995: The year the future began
The year 1995 opened on a Sunday — with the farewell appearance of a popular newspaper comic, Gary Larson’s delightfully bizarre “Far Side.”
“The Far Side” entered retirement January 1, 1995, ending a 15-year parade of amusing and lighthearted oddities that included talking bears, cows driving cars, and dinosaurs facing extinction from smoking cigarettes.
As I note in my new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, it was half-seriously suggested by the Associated Press that Larson decided to give up “The Far Side” because it had become more and more “difficult to out-weird the rest of the newspaper.”
“The Far Side” was inspired in its quirky weirdness and was syndicated to nearly 1,900 newspapers. Its farewell installment was a two-panel takeoff on the closing scene of The Wizard of Oz, depicting Larson waking up at home following an extended visit to a strange place populated by monsters, cavemen, and nerdy little kids. A prolonged stay at “The Far Side,” in other words.
The cartoon’s end was widely mourned. The columnist Herb Caen wrote of Larson: “When he said he was retiring as of Jan. 1, we hoped against hope that it was yet another far-out joke and it turns out the joke is on us.
“Gone he is, along with his mad menagerie, and we shall not see his like again.”
Larson famously kept a low profile, even after retirement of “The Far Side.” USA Today said several years ago that sightings of Larson were “about as rare as the exotic vipers, rhinos and cheetahs that graced his daily strip” during its run.
Larson suggested that the grind of drawing the panel, day after day, led him to give up “The Far Side.” In portions of an interview aired on ABC News a couple of weeks before the comic’s farewell, Larson said:
“I’ve always talked about feeling like you have homework forever. It’s like as soon as you turn something in, it doesn’t count anymore. The next day, something else is due.”
He also said: “I have to admit my humor is sometimes on the dark side or whatever you want to call it. But I don’t think that’s altogether unhealthy.”
Not at all.
“The Far Side” lives on in calendars and on coffee mugs. But the last original panels appeared on the first day of 1995.
That day was quirky in other ways, too.
The “Outlook” section of the Washington Post on January 1 featured a collection of predictions by commentators who wrote as if they were looking back on 1995. The essays were decidedly mixed in their insight, and were grouped beneath the headline, “Looking back at the year ahead.”
Most amusing were the predictions of Juan Williams, a journalist who is a commentator for Fox News. He wrote, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that President Bill Clinton had decided in 1995 not to seek reelection in 1996, due in part to the Whitewater real estate-investment scandal in Arkansas. That scandal threatened to engulf Clinton and his wife, Hillary, but never really did.
In his look-back prediction, Williams wrote:
“Just a year ago — on Jan. 1, 1995 — it would have been unthinkable that Bill Clinton would decline to seek reelection. But that was before Democrats on Capitol Hill discovered that it was easier to do business with Republicans if they didn’t have to spend time defending Clinton. And if you consider the doggedness of Whitewater investigators and their increasing attention to his wife’s activities, Clinton’s decision to withdraw makes sense. With pitifully low public approval ratings, the president seemed almost eager to get out of town before some budget-cutter started questioning his pension benefits.”
While laughable in hindsight — even in the darkest moments of the sex-and-lies scandal that led to his impeachment in 1998, Clinton, who won reelection in 1996, insisted he never thought of quitting — Williams’ essay did suggest the battered state of Clinton’s presidency as 1995 began.
The Republicans, led by the voluble Newt Gingrich, had swept the mid-term elections in November 1994 and on New Year’s Day 1995 were about to assume formal control of both houses of Congress.
Political power seemed to be flowing inexorably away from the president, a sense that would deepen during the first months of 1995, reaching a point where Clinton insisted on his relevance, and said so at a news conference in April.
Not until November, during the first of two partial shutdowns of the federal government orchestrated by Gingrich and other Republican leaders in Congress, did Clinton begin to gain the upper hand, politically. Opinion polls showed that most Americans blamed the Republicans, not Clinton, for the partial closures.
By the end of 1995, Clinton’s presidency was reinvigorated. His approval ratings in early January 1996 were hardly “pitifully low”: A survey conducted for NBC News and the New York Times in the first days of 1996 found that 50 percent of respondents approved of Clinton’s work, 39 percent did not. Eleven percent were undecided.
But as I write in 1995, the first government shutdown “had even greater and more stunning consequences: it made possible an otherwise impossible liaison, one that would explode twenty-six months later in an extraordinary scandal of sex and lies, a scandal that dogged the president to his last full day in office. The scandal would humble Clinton, imperil his presidency, and deepen partisan cleavages to such an extent that they have never fully closed.”
The shutdown of November allowed Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern, to get close to Clinton and engage in the first of several sexual encounters with the president.
Their furtive trysts at the White House continued intermittently until March 1997 and gave rise the following year to a scandal that rocked the American government and threatened Clinton’s presidency as nothing else ever would.
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