The Best of Times

December 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The book is “The Best of Times, America in the Clinton Years.” The author is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and NewsHour regular Haynes Johnson. Haynes, welcome.


GWEN IFILL: When you wrote this book and you came up with the title, “The Best of Times: America in the Clinton years,” were you being sardonic? And obviously, this was before September 11.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, it was finished seven months before September 11 and it was a Dickensian title. It was an ironic title. “It was the best of times, the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,” and I think that’s what, to me, spoke about what the ’90s– the boom years, the bubble years– really were. They had all these things, both good and bad in them, and they ended on September 11. That was the final crash.

GWEN IFILL: It all ended. You’ve been traveling a lot with this book, talking to people about it around the country since September 11, and have you… You say in this book that, basically, we all got fat and happy during the Clinton years.

HAYNES JOHNSON: We didn’t pay attention.

GWEN IFILL: Didn’t pay attention. Is that still so?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, on the contrary. It’s astonishing. I’ve been in 21 cities now, traveling around the country, all over the United States and people are absolutely focused. There’s an apprehension in the background. They want to know what’s happening. They’re following the news in a way that we weren’t doing at all. And they have lots of questions. “Where are we going?” Nobody can answer them exactly. “What’s it mean, how did we get here, what should we be doing, and how long is this going to go on and how much has my life changed?” And they’re looking back. It’s very interesting, Gwen. They’re looking back on the period, the boom years, the bubble years, the Clinton years, the age of whatever foolishness and the best of times, and they’re saying, “What happened to us?” “Why did we allow that to happen?” And I think if you take the lessons of it, if we learn why we allowed ourselves to go to sleep, as it were– cut off the news and get in scandal and diversion and entertainment– and be diverted from the great issues, then it’s going to be a positive thing. We’re going to learn from it.

GWEN IFILL: You wrote a book about Ronald Reagan you called “Sleepwalking Through History.”

HAYNES JOHNSON: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: How did that period of history compare to the period of history you talk about in this book?

HAYNES JOHNSON: It led very much into what we’re talking about now. There’s no distinct… You don’t cut a knife right through the page of history and say, “this is the new history and that’s the old history”– although September 11 may be one of those moments– but the ’90s really followed on the ’80s, where we’re going into privatization, capitalization, mergers and acquisitions, deficit economy– turned out not to be, but the boom– and then we had this little recession at the end. But they set the way in defining what privatizing and looking at Wall Street as being the font of great boom stuff, you know? It was, “Gold was going to be here– luxury!”

GWEN IFILL: Dot-com boom.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, and that was just on the horizon. And that really… When you got into the ’90s and we got this roar of success and we really believed– or people believed, at least– that we repealed history. We repealed the market forces; it only went up. It was much like the 1920s– “it’s never going to go down, it only goes up.”

GWEN IFILL: But you also write that people were still feeling this sense of distrust and unease underneath the surface during this time.

HAYNES JOHNSON: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: How did that, then, lead us to where we are now?

HAYNES JOHNSON: The uneasiness was because we knew things weren’t quite right. Not about terrorism, although I do end the book on terrorism, I mean, no foresight on my part. I talk about the Taliban and the fundamentalists and that America faced the fundamentalist attack possibility in the future, and it was going to be happen somehow or another. We shouldn’t have been surprised by that. But the uneasiness was somehow, with all the good things that we had, we weren’t together and people were looking at the great disparity in incomes in the country, because while people were dot-com millions… You’re probably a dot-com billionaire.

GWEN IFILL: I don’t think so.

HAYNES JOHNSON: (Laughs) well, at least not now. Nobody is now.

GWEN IFILL: If we were once.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Right, but they were looking at this as a way to sort of cash in and so forth, but you knew that the huge disparity– the reality of the times– was that there was a greater difference between the very top and the very bottom and the very top and the middle, and people were struggling on their own and holding their own. And so there was a sort of uneasiness. And then there was this spectacle of tawdriness and sleaziness and scandal, and I’m afraid our business contributed to it. I mean, we loved it. We went big on the “all-O.J., All-Monica, all-Gary Condit, all the time” to the exclusion of other things. And I think people understood that this wasn’t quite right.

GWEN IFILL: You coin a lot of interesting phrases in this book, some of which you attribute to others, like one called “Pax Americana,” which a scientist describes as “we can do anything we want, but we aren’t doing it.”

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. That, in a way… That was a wonderful fellow at Cal Tech. He was a great physicist. He was telling me what all the wonders of science were doing. That was part of the times, too. This great revolution in science and technology and medicine– extraordinary going on– and yet we had in our hands all the… We could do anything we wanted, but we weren’t figuring out what it is we wanted to do with all the great things we had — all the treasures, a country at peace, no cold war, Russia was alone– no Soviet Union– all the “-isms” in history had faded into the past, and so it was the greatest opportunity for the United States to make long- term… deal with the country, deal with the world. We didn’t do it.

GWEN IFILL: Do you… Did you find in your travels, as you talk to people about this book and other things since September 11, that people… that that kind of disattention– I just made that word up– that kind of lack of attention…

HAYNES JOHNSON: It’s a good word. I like it.

GWEN IFILL: …Has led us to where we are now, where we were so baffled that there was anyone out there who could hate us so much?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think that the reason that we didn’t pay attention to the threats of terrorism… After all, the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, we had the ship go down, the “Cole”– didn’t go down, but almost did– we had embassies attacked, Americans died. All… We had all these things we had. We had reports gathering dust about the terrorist threat and so forth, and the reason I think that we were so sure of our power and our technological prowess, that no matter what happened outside our borders, we were invulnerable. We were invincible, and it couldn’t happen to us. It was distant. And, in that way, it was sort of like Pearl Harbor– what happened on September 11– the shock that it could happen to us, it happened here, and I think the same thing happened to the United States.

GWEN IFILL: How about the cynical America that you write about, the folks who believe that government and politics are meaningless and irrelevant, does that still exist?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, and I think one of the… There are so many opportunities we have now. If we learn the lessons of what mistakes we made in the past, particularly in the last decade and the good years, and the feeling about government, that it was irrelevant… You and I know that the cynicism… People were voting less and less, didn’t believe in leaders and institutions… And you found this process, now people think, “Yeah, public service means something. It means firemen, it means policemen, it means nurses, it means emergency workers, it means people who are trying to find out whether anthrax spores… ‘How do they go?’ And we need money for health, to build up on diseases and so forth.” And I think the role of government… We now see we need government. Government is also the military. It’s also providing for our security and leadership, leadership who can tell us, “This is what we have to do now in a crisis.” So I think that there’s been a fundamental change there. It may be transitory, but we have the opportunity now to knit back the society. And I think those are the positive things that I hope take place out of this book.

GWEN IFILL: So the lost opportunities that you wrote about…

HAYNES JOHNSON: Squandered, yeah.

GWEN IFILL: Squandered opportunities, because of laziness or inattention or whatever, you think that we have… We’re in a unique place now to get them back?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I do. Maybe I’m naive and a romantic– you’ve known me for years– I’ll confess to being those things, but I really believe this is such a fundamental, searing experience for people. It’s forced people to look within them, and if a country can do that… We’re a great people. I’m not ashamed to say I’m absolutely, unabashedly proud of this country. We’ve always risen to crises in the past. We’re not very good in looking at the long-term, and if this forces us to think — “we’ve got to educate ourselves differently, we’ve got to pay attention to the world differently, we’ve got to be more aware of events around us and the problems we face, we’ve got to learn foreign languages”– then the world will be better. If we don’t, we repeat that history of the past.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes Johnson, thank you for the book and thank you for joining us.