1995: The year the future began
Twenty-five years have passed since the dawning of 1995 and the year’s enduring significance is more apparent than ever.
Nineteen-ninety-five was a decisive time defined by watershed moments in new media, domestic terrorism, political scandal, criminal justice, and international diplomacy.
It was the year when the internet, primitive though it was by contemporary standards, entered mainstream consciousness.
It was the year when domestic terrorism reached deep into the American heartland, ushering in a regime of restrictions that have become ever-tighter and pronounced in American life.
It was the year of the O.J. Simpson “Trial of the Century,” a double-murder case that enthralled and repelled the country, a case that continues to resonate in popular culture. Before the not-guilty verdicts were read in court on an early October day in 1995, America essentially shut down in anticipation, in what the New York Times called “an eerie moment of national communion.”
It was the year when American diplomacy brought an end to the war in Bosnia, Europe’s most horrific conflict since World War II. That accomplishment — an uncertain prospect until nearly the end of an extraordinary, three-week negotiation at an air base near Dayton, Ohio — gave rise to a period of hubris and muscularity in American foreign affairs.
Indeed, the fingerprints of 1995 can be found all over the present.
Take, for example, Amazon.com, the behemoth that reaches into many corners of American life. It dominates online retailing and has become what the Wall Street Journal called “an amalgamation of a handful of distinct but sizable businesses” which include consumer electronics, high-end groceries, and internet technology services.
Amazon grandly promoted itself then as “Earth’s largest bookstore” but logged perhaps $12,000 in orders during its opening week.
But the timing Amazon’s launch in 1995 was propitious — and decisive. As Robert Spector wrote in Amazon.com: Get Big Fast, if the company had gone live a year earlier, “there barely would have been enough personal computers connected to the Internet to keep the company afloat; a year later and the competition would have had an insurmountable lead.”
For reasons that go well beyond Amazon, 1995 was quite fecund, digitally.
Many online mainstays trace their origins to that year. Among them are Match.com, eBay, and Craigslist (or their predecessors). The Internet Explorer web browser, the Java programming language, and the RealAudio streaming technology all were launched or developed in 1995.
Of course, as I wrote in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, not everyone in America was online that year. But almost everyone had at least heard about the internet, in part because of newspaper reports that touted, and even hyped, the emergent digital landscape (see San Jose Mercury News article nearby).
No development in 1995 attracted more attention to the early Web than the initial public offering of shares of Netscape Communications, maker of what then was the most popular web browser. Millions of Americans made their first toe-dipping visits to the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s via Netscape’s Navigator browser.
Netscape’s IPO on August 9, 1995, was a smashing success, a resounding Wall Street debut for a company less than two years old that had not turned a profit.
By day’s end, Netscape’s market value was almost $3 billion, at least on paper. And its IPO had demonstrated the Web was where fortunes could be made.
Another turning point in 1995 came in the wake of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, the single deadliest spasm of home-grown terrorism in the United States. The mastermind was Timothy McVeigh, a disgruntled veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who had help from two Army buddies, Terry Nichols and Michael Fortier. (As I discussed in 1995, it is highly improbable that the conspiracy went beyond that trio.)
The bombing killed 168 people, including 19 children at the day care center in the building. A month later, authorities in Washington, D.C., abruptly closed to vehicular traffic two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House.
The move was intended to protect the White House from a truck bombing of the kind that destroyed the Murrah Building. The street closure, notably, anticipated a panoply of other measures that testify to a more guarded, more suspicious, more security-inclined America.
In Washington, an “architecture of defensiveness” has become plainly visible; the barriers and the steel gates have brought a shabby look to avenues in the heart of the capital, I noted in 1995.
The impeachment of President Bill Clinton had its origins in the partial shutdown of the federal government in mid-November 1995, a dispute over spending that prompted the furlough of 800,000 federal workers, including much of the White House administrative staff. Into that breach stepped unpaid interns, among them 22-year-old Monica Lewinsky.
She was assigned to duty in the chief of staff’s office, not far from the president’s Oval Office. Before long, the flirtatious Lewinsky caught Clinton’s eye. The two began a consensual, adulterous affair that went on intermittently until March 1997 and exploded into scandal in January 1998.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached Clinton in December 1998 for perjured testimony about his relationship with Lewinky, and for his attempts to conceal their affair.
As egregious as they were, Clinton’s falsehoods, evasions and dishonest efforts to conceal his dalliance with Lewinsky “scarcely rivaled the crimes of Watergate, a political scandal unique in the depths of wrongdoing it plumbed,” I wrote in 1995. “Clinton may have been a raffish, self-centered rogue who tortured the truth and recruited aides to do the same on his behalf. But he was no vindictive, score-settling crook oozing paranoia, as Nixon was.”
Nixon resigned in 1974 before he could be impeached and turned from office.
Sordid though it was, the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal did not meet the threshold for removal that Watergate had effectively set. As widely expected, Clinton was acquitted in February 1999 at trial before the U.S. Senate.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal lingers in popular memory, of course. It was recalled, inevitably, as the House, now Democrat-controlled, recently voted to impeach President Donald Trump.
The movement against sexual harassment in the workplace also brought renewed attention to distorted power dynamics of the affair between president and intern.
Belatedly, Lewinsky has said she recognizes the significance of the relationship’s imbalance. In an essay for Vanity Fair nearly two years ago, Lewinsky wrote, “I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.
“I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
She further wrote:
“He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college. (Note to the trolls, both Democratic and Republican: none of the above excuses me for my responsibility for what happened. I meet Regret every day.)”
Clinton, too, has faced an overdue reckoning for his affair with Lewinsky. He has become something of a pariah in Democratic party circles; no presidential candidate is eager to campaign with him.
The reckoning promises to go on. In late September 2020, the FX cable network plans to premiere the third season of its periodic and popular American Crime Story series. This project is called Impeachment and will revisit the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
One of the producers is Monica Lewinsky.
Call it evidence of the long reach of 1995.
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