1995: The year the future began
A flaw common to documentary treatments of the 1990s (or of any decade, really) lies in the failure to address fundamental yet vital questions such as:
“What’s the point?”
“What are we to take away from the program?”
“Besides an opportunity to indulge in gauzy nostalgia, what do the ’90s mean to us today?”
So it is with the hour-long documentary, Washington in the ’90s, which has been airing on WETA, the public broadcasting station in Washington, D.C.
The program packs in reminiscences and flashbacks — including the capital’s tumultuous local politics that swirled around former Mayor Marion Barry, the transformations of the city’s center and other neighborhoods such as Adams-Morgan, the decline of its championship pro football team, the Million Man march of 1995, the paralyzing winter storm of 1996, and more. But the documentary fails to say what it all means, or what viewers are supposed to take away.
The effect is rambling nostalgia that is interesting in places but not particularly edifying or insightful. The program isn’t likely to exert much appeal to audiences beyond the Washington area, which is unfortunate given that events and personalities of the ’90s do exert enduring influence.
The documentary offers a few memorable moments, notably the clip of a local television interview with a younger Jake Tapper, about his date with Monica Lewinsky. The date preceded the explosion in early 1998 of a sex-and-lies scandal that ensnared Lewinsky and nearly cost Bill Clinton his presidency.
Tapper, then in his late 20s and now chief Washington correspondents of CNN, recounted the date with Lewinsky in an essay in Washington City Paper published soon after the scandal broke. Tapper’s was a sympathetic account, in which he wrote:
“I feel bad for poor Monica and feel unclean adding my feeble barnacle to her ship of fame. Although I will admit to an odd weave of loathing and envy when I watch the blabbocracy breathlessly weighing in — Hey, I think, they don’t even know this chick. But I am not jumping in because one dinner with Monica enabled me to read her mind as she sits with friends and family … pondering her fate.”
“I also want to point out that behind this particular bimbo eruption sits a young woman who is not a bimbo, who is a fairly sensible sort from what I saw, who was never going to be the one holding a press conference alongside a posterboard blowup of the Star [tabloid magazine] with a back pocket full of the cash she got from selling out. She may be guilty of poor judgment, but she never asked for this,” a reference to the uproar that accompanied the emergent scandal.
News of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair stunned the capital as nothing had since the days of Watergate, a point made in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
The scandal, which had its roots in Clinton’s clandestine affair with Lewinsky that began in mid-November 1995, offered the writers a narrative thread that would have invigorated a jumbled and mostly ho-hum documentary.
The thread could have been as modest and straightforward as how Washington was dealt, absorbed, and arguably was toughened by a series of powerful and even unprecedented blows in the ’90s — a picture of the capital reeling, re-centering, and recovering.
Such a narrative arc would have tied together upheaval in city and federal governments — notably Barry’s arrest and six-month imprisonment in the early ’90s for cocaine possession and Clinton’s impeachment, trial, and acquittal in 1998-99.
It would have pulled together social unrest and protest in the capital — the Latino rioting ignited by a police shooting in 1991 and the controversial Million Man March, led by Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam but shunned by the NAACP’s executive committee.
It even would have given narrative cohesion to the decline of Washington’s professional football team following its Super Bowl victory in 1991, a decline into mediocrity that was interrupted by a playoff appearance following the 1999 season.
Such a narrative thread would have made for a livelier, more coherent program, and would have given context to Washington’s transformation during the ’90s and in the years since.
And no one would have been left asking, “What’s the point?”
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