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1997: Year in Review

January 1, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: As the New Year begins we take a look back at the past year with five NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson; and Essayists Roger Rosenblatt and Richard Rodriguez. Happy New Year to you all! Roger, what do you think was most distinctive about 1997?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The emotionalism of the people and the publicity of that emotionalism. There’s so much that happened that brought people to a kind of fever pitch, sometimes of hysteria, sometimes attractive, sometimes sympathetic, everything from the Heaven’s Gate terrible suicide to the Promise Keepers’ meeting, to the Roswell, New Mexico, revival of the saucer business, to the reactions to the Nanny Trial, the so-called “Nanny Trial,” in Boston, and, most amazingly, astonishingly, to Diana’s death, of course.

MARGARET WARNER: The year of emotion, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I think it was. And that was a sign largely of the fact that in many other ways it was so quiet. This was a very quiet year, for instance, in international policy, military affairs; very quiet year in the United States.

We had basically peace and prosperity. And I think one reason why we could focus so much on things like the death of Diana and the things that Roger mentioned was that this all took place against the background of very little political turbulence. Take a look at something like 1927, when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. That was an important event but one reason it was so important was because it took place during a period in which not a lot otherwise was happening. Had that taken place, for instance, during the depth of the Depression and perhaps a run-up to World War II, that would have been much smaller.

MARGARET WARNER: Doris, did it strike you that way, as the year of emotions and emotionalism?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I might call it sentiment, instead of emotion. I mean, I think there’s something to what Michael says. In times of peace and prosperity, as we’re exhibiting now, as we had in the 50’s, as we had in the 20’s, there’s a certain luxury that allows us to focus on these kinds of events that really have no impact on our daily lives, the same way a Depression or a war would obviously have.

When you think about Diana, when you think about the Nanny Trial, when you even think about O. J. Simpson’s civil verdict, all of which were the big stories of the year, none of those were grounded in the personal realities of people’s daily lives. They were simply vicarious kinds of feelings, which is more sentiment than real emotion, and it’s almost an artificial hunger for some sort of community and attachment that isn’t really representing the same kind of loss or grief as when a father dies, a mother dies, or a whole community is suffering in a certain way.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard, how do you see this theory about the year of emotions and emotionalism?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think Doris is right; that is, I think that there is something of sentiment about the year, rather than of emotion. And, yet, I think that the yearning for mother and the yearning for father were very, very telling. Clearly something is not right with our American family, and that so many of us are mourning the loss not only of Diana but of Mother Theresa.

So many of the questions raised by the Nanny Trial, for example, had to do with the place of the nanny in an otherwise parentless house. The questions at the Mall with Promise Keepers were all questions about whether or not fathers are behaving like fathers, husbands like husbands. It seems to me that the expressions may have been sentimental at times but clearly there is some expression here that suggests that something is not well with the American soul.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: We