The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

The enduring 1990s: Vivid context for contemporary life

The 25th anniversary of opening arguments in the O.J Simpson “Trial of the Century” fell last week and Court TV.com marked the occasion by launching a retrospective series about the criminal proceedings that stretched across much of 1995.

Impeaching Bill Clinton, December 1998

Meantime, the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump inevitably stirred comparisons to the scandal that nearly destroyed President Bill Clinton’s presidency in the late 1990s. Clinton’s impeachment is to be revisited in an “American Crime Story” series on the FX cable network later this year, or maybe next.

The impeachment saga and Clinton’s rocky marriage with his wife, Hillary, are considered in a docu-series that Hulu, the video-on-demand service, is preparing to release in March.

The four-part series, titled “Hillary,” was screened last week at the Sundance film festival in Utah. According to reports from the festival, Bill Clinton says in the series that he entered into the affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky “to manage my anxieties.” He also says of Lewinsky:

“I watched her try to get a normal life back again. But you have to decide how to define ‘normal.’” (Because of enduring fallout from her affair with Clinton, who is 27 years her senior, Lewinsky can never have a “normal” life.)

So what accounts for this burst of ’90s topics in the news? Is it mere coincidence? Or is there something more, in that important aspects of the ’90s are still contested, still poignant, and still unresolved?

I rather think it’s no coincidence. That the ’90s still exert influence on contemporary life is no secret, especially to readers of The 1995 Blog. Several factors account for the phenomenon of the enduring ’90s.

Notably, the ’90s are still proximate; they are of the recent past and readily, even fondly remembered by Americans of a certain age. Even younger Americans who have no immediate recollection of the decade find intriguing its movies, music, and even its scandals.

Clinton’s finger-wagging lie

Some fondness for the ’90s may be attributable to discontent with contemporary life, with its toxic politics and endless wars abroad. In contrast, the ’90s seem a better and less star-crossed time.

Moreover, the video record of the ’90s is rich, readily available, and of reasonably good quality, all of which helps keep the decade from fading. The video record is vast and some it is memorable: Clinton’s finger-wagging denial-lie of his affair with “that woman” Lewinsky comes to mind.

The accessible video record no doubt helps fuel period bouts of ’90s nostalgia and allows for ready comparisons, then and now. The impeachment trials of Clinton and Trump (for whom the ’90s were a personal crucible) come to mind in that regard.

Strikingly, no small number of prominent figures of the ’90s are still around, still making news. There are, for example, the Clintons, who seem never to go away. There’s O.J. Simpson, making money by autographing almost anything. And there’s Trump’s impeachment trial team, which includes Kenneth Starr, who as independent counsel in 1998 proposed 11 grounds for impeaching Bill Clinton, and Alan Dershowitz, one of Simpson’s lawyers in the 1995 double-murder trial.

The roots of some contemporary dilemmas also can be traced to the ’90s. Hyper-partisanship is an example.

As I pointed out in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, in the chapter about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal:

“The votes to impeach the president were largely along party lines: Republicans were mostly in favor, Democrats were mostly opposed. And those votes signaled a stark partisan divide that would deepen and intensify during the first … years of the twenty-first century. Surveys have found that the Republican and Democratic parties have both become more ideologically unified and more homogeneous. Liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats became rarities — oxymorons, almost — a trend that has become most vivid in the House of Representatives and in statehouses around the country. Middle-ground positions are more often eschewed, and swing states in presidential elections have become fewer.”

I further wrote in 1995:

“Sharp and predictable partisan disagreement on a variety of matters came to characterize the country’s riven political culture. Well into the twenty-first century, Republicans and Democrats were at odds, and often bitterly so, over the size and reach of the federal government, at odds over national health care and other federal entitlements, at odds over environmental protection, at odds over national security. It would be a mistaken exaggeration of course to attribute political polarization exclusively to the storm provoked by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

“But the impeachment battles of 1998–99 contributed mightily.”

WJC

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