December 31, 1998
| JIM LEHRER: First, Andy, you recently polled the American
people on what they thought were the most important events of this year.
What did you find?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, when we asked people what are the most important events, what were the big stories, they pretty much say the scandal, the predictable thing. We have a graphic, in fact, showing that about 30 percent volunteered that it was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that was the most important news event of the year. But what's really surprising about the public's attitudes, is if we look at a compilation of our news interest index, that is the surveys we do monthly which ask people how - how closely are you following news stories, at the top of the list is not the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal but, in fact, the shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, where 49 percent said they were following very closely the Oregon High School shooting and the shooting in the capitol. Moving down the list, the military strikes against Iraq and bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan were followed by large numbers. And not till we get to the very bottom of that list - in fact, the tenth most closely followed story - do we get the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation, and that was back in late August/early September, after the president's admissions. And that was about as high as it got over the course of the year, and certainly it - while it was a story that dominated the political conversation and dominated Washington, and the media, the American public didn't pay that much attention to it relative to some of these other stories.
JIM LEHRER: And yet, they thought it was the most important event of the year.
ANDREW KOHUT: They thought it was the most important event of the year just by virtue of how much it's tied up Washington, how much media time it's absorbed. We have another graphic - if it's still available - showing that it was only 30 percent, however, who said that. And there weren't many other stories. That's the other interesting thing about this graphic. When we said, well, what else happened, and you know, mentions of Iraq, other Clinton scandals, Senator Glenn's trip to outer space, but relatively little else penetrated the public's consciousness. But, as our interest surveys have shown, while people acknowledge the importance of this, they've shied away from the story. And one of the most surprising things to us was on that final weekend, the - when the vote was taken - only 34 --
JIM LEHRER: In the House of Representatives.
ANDREW KOHUT: In the House of Representatives - only 34 percent said they paid very close attention. So while it was a very historically important event, only twice before in American history had this occurred, we -- the American public said ho-hum to the details.
JIM LEHRER: You know, you've been doing this kind of work for a while. Did you say ho-hum? What was your reaction when you looked at your own findings?
ANDREW KOHUT: My reaction was not ho-hum. My reaction was wow! I thought that would have gotten a 50 or a 40. The average story gets about a 20. But the big stories get 60 and 70 percent, the Gulf War or the O.J. Simpson, or the death of Princess Diana, they're up in the 50's, 60's, and 70's - 34 percent was a surprisingly low number of people saying they were paying close attention. And if you look at what some of the other aspects of what that survey found, it showed that the public (a) was not surprised - they expected Clinton to be -- the vote to go against him - and it wasn't a pleasing outcome, so they didn't dwell on the details. Most Americans know what happened, but there were other things to do; there were football games to watch that weekend; there was Christmas shopping to do; and the public has sort of voted with its feet on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal -- as much as news interest - this also reflects the public's attitude toward a story that they wish had been over.
JIM LEHRER: But did you not find it interesting that the top three or four were all shootings?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, there's a lot of shock in the media to the American public. But these were stories that were not only shocking; they were disturbing -- children shooting other children really touched the public consciousness. And the U.S. Capitol shooting, obviously, did that as well. There were many other shootings, for example, the shooting of the abortion doctor only scored an 18 on that same index, but these three stories - stories about the children and the story in the Capitol were things that really touched Americans and made Americans wonder about our society and our country, and the public - when it looks at the news -- it looks at it from its own point of view -- you know, in 1997, one year ago, while Princess Di was the top story of the year, and the other top stories had to do with the UPS strike or contaminated meat, things that reflect on how the public, how ordinary Americans are conducting their lives.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Let's bring the others in on this. Michael, you - how would you characterize or sum up this year, from your perspective?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, in one way, Jim, it almost kills you to see what's happened this year, because, you know, I've talked to other historians over the years, and we play a parlor game, what was the best year of the century. And you think of perhaps a candidate like 1956, peace and prosperity, Eisenhower was president. And in a way, 1998 should put 1956 in the shade -- the Cold War is over; we've got peace and prosperity; also, on ideology, you've got about as much of a consensus between the two parties on things like foreign policy and the economy as we've almost had for most of this century. And at the same time, because of this Lewinsky scandal, Washington, instead of being a place of great amity and happiness, has been as poisonous an atmosphere as I think we've seen probably for most of the 20th century, maybe even more than the McCarthy period.
JIM LEHRER: And do you think it will be remembered for that?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it will be, and the thing that's poignant about it is that as important as it is that we think seriously about whether the president should be impeached and convicted or not, this is not an issue like slavery or whether we should get involved in World War II -- a big issue that really should divide the country -- it's just poignant that at this moment - at time when we all should be absolutely delighted with the state of this country -- Washington is about as grim as I've ever seen it.
JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, do you see poignance as well?
JOAN HOFF: I do. And I also see, though, the idea that we're going to wrestle for years now as historians once the question of how did a sex scandal that broke in January end up in an impeachment in December, and I think it's instructive, if we look back at the atmosphere surrounding other impeachments - we've only had two -- but in each case they've been times of transition and stress in which problems facing the country - both economic, foreign policy, and political problems - haven't been easy to resolve.
And if you look at 1868, you see that with Andrew Johnson, or the radical Republicans didn't have a monopoly on what was right to do with the South after the Civil War, but there were very hard problems that the country couldn't seem to resolve. In 1974, with Nixon, you had us coming out of the War in Vietnam, which had divided the country; you had a civil rights movement which was crumbling, and you had a neo conservative backlash coming in with the end of the war in Vietnam. And there were problems that seemingly couldn't be resolved. And I suggest that from a historian's point of view, we are living in a similar time period right now in which we haven't since the end of the Cold War really resolved the foreign and domestic problems and the economic problems facing this country. And, consequently, I think we can look upon impeachment hearings and impeachment processes as something that comes about when the country hasn't faced its real problems.
And so impeachment becomes then a kind of - a way in which we temporarily take our minds off our problems even further by going after a particular president where the majority party decides, for whatever reason, that a president has precipitated the impeachment himself - Johnson by violating an act of Congress, Nixon by covering up Watergate, and Clinton by lying under oath. So I think perhaps from a historical perspective it's interesting to look at the impeachment process as reflecting serious problems the nation hasn't resolved and the president becoming a scapegoat to a certain degree for those problems. And in the case of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, you do have sex being involved, so it was titillating until it got serious with impeachment and then viewers began to diminish.
And I think you can say the same thing with the economy; we have prosperity, but it's a kind of soap opera casino gambling mentality we're bringing to bear, I think, on our problems. We don't want to look at them, so we're saying, well, Clinton was entertaining because of the sex involved, and now he's our good luck charm for the economy, so we want to keep him, but we're not still looking beneath the surface to resolve the basic problems.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what do you think of Joan Hoff's theory?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, when I think about 1998, I think what's going to strike historians is the lack of loyalty to institutions and a really poisonous political culture. When you look at the president - and it will have to be seen to some extent - he put his individual survival over respect and loyalty to the institution of the presidency - you look at the Republicans in Congress, and they put their desire for vengeance against Clinton over the normal institutional requirements for accommodation, compromise, negotiation - I think of old Speaker Rayburn, who said to get along, you've got to go along; to go along, you got to get along. And he would feel so terrible at what happened to this institution, which was his life, his family, his whole manner of being, and then you look at the public, who has really not been engaged in public affairs and has a great cynicism toward the leaders, in general.
And I think one of the reasons why the Mark McGwire home chase evinced so much interest or evoked it was because for one brief, shining moment - even though sports is hurt in the same way by a lack of loyalty to institutions with free agents and people moving from one team to another and greedy owners, it seemed that those two character, McGwire and Sosa, cared about the past, cared about the institution of baseball, and we could lose ourselves in the hope that it might be restored. So I think when we look back on this era and on this year, that lack of loyalty and lack of respect for institutions, unfortunately, is going to stand out.
JIM LEHRER: What will stand out for you, Haynes, do you think?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, all those things but something else. I mean, I spent almost all this year traveling around the country, Jim. And every time I left Washington the same thing kept coming over and over again. They didn't understand what was happening in Washington; they didn't understand why we were all obsessed by it; they didn't like what the press was doing; they didn't like what the prosecutor was doing; they didn't like what Clinton was doing; they didn't like any of the cast at all; they didn't like the culture of scandal or celebrity; and to them - people I met across - those in science, medical and technology on the campuses and businesses, this was the best time - what Michael said - the best of all times for the United States, making stunning gains and yet something was sick at the core of the society. And that's what I think Doris and Michael and Joan Hoff have been saying, that there is something at the core here that we don't - we don't like it and we don't know how it's going to come out.
But, Jim, you know, I was thinking, we did the show a year ago. If anyone had said to you - you had asked us - look, supposing this is going to happen in 1998 - a President of the United States has just won a second term, the first president, Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected back to back in the White House, he was going to be caught up within a few weeks within the worst, most salacious sexual scandal in our history, would be shown to have lied and betrayed his family, his daughter, all of his friends, his party, and so forth, it would go on for a whole year, then he was exposed, and you would say at the end of this that he was impeached, actually impeached, and then you would see these figures that we just watched from Andy about the polling rate - today he is the number one admired American -
JIM LEHRER: There was a Gallup poll today to -
HAYNES JOHNSON: -- out today - the most admired American is Bill Clinton. Who's the most admired woman? Hillary Clinton. I mean, this whole idea of impeachment - he was impeached - 74 percent - he's got the highest approval rating of any president at this point in a second term in our history - higher than Ronald Reagan - now we'll be - that's what we'll be figuring out. It was the best of times for the country and the worst of times in many ways for our political system.
JIM LEHRER: Quickly, beginning with you, Michael, and working back, moving away from politics in Washington and in government, were there any other signs of 1998, say in the world of art or architecture or anything like that, that stands out?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: The fact that there really has not been a dominant movement in the arts or in architecture - you know, you think of, Jim, of something like the 1920s - there's a very detectable architecture of the 1920's - you look at something like the Wrigley Building in Chicago, you know exactly that that was the outgrowth of that great, rich, commercial culture, some of those great art deco train stations of the 1930's - it just speaks of the ethics and the content of those times. Same thing with the 50's and the 60's and certainly the 1980's - you can't really think of an architecture of the 1990s that really says this decade to you or the same thing, for instance, in painting, and I think that does have a greater meaning because what it suggests is that in politics and in other areas of life this is not a decade that really hangs together, and that's a little bit of a clue, I think, to the fact that perhaps in the future we'll look on this decade as something that was perhaps a little bit confused, perhaps a little bit transitional.
JIM LEHRER: Transitional, Joan, would you agree?
JOAN HOFF: I certainly do because I think if you look back at the decade, there has been a conceptual vacuum, at least at the political and economic levels, I think, and there are reasons for that. We came out of the Cold War such a victor that we sort of basked in our own triumphalism, and then as the economy began to pick up in the - by the mid 1990's, that just contributed to our complacency, instead of like the generation after the Second World War, realizing that we had serious problems in facing them The complacency of the triumphalism and the prosperity has led us to shove those problems under the rug, and as Michael says, even affected cultural developments. And so it's part and parcel of the same thing.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, do you feel the same way about the cultural side of this?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think what saddens me about the decade of the 90's is that it could have been a time when there was a collective movement to really handle the problems. When you have so much prosperity and you have America number one in the world, and you have relative peace abroad, it could have been a time when people came together to really worry about the problems as a society. We still have one in four kids living in poverty, enormous race problems, enormous cultural divided in the country at large, lots of divisions, and it just feels like with another set of leaders or another kind of public or something might have made us feel here's a time like the 60's when we can do something, and that's what saddens me, that we didn't take that challenge.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, based on your year of traveling, did you come up a reason for this?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Not a reason, Jim. It's been borne for a long time in us; we've been this culture of celebrity and scandal. But it is - I agree with what Doris and what everybody else has been saying - a missed opportunity. We have this golden opportunity where peace, prosperity - we have this incredible wealth; we're unchallenged scientifically, medically, technologically in all these areas. And we have even have a surplus for the first time in 30 years. We're talking about -
JIM LEHRER: Budget surplus.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Budget surplus.
JIM LEHRER: We're in the information revolution.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And people are plugged into the world in ways we never have been and yet, we're somehow not together still.
JOAN HOFF: You have to remember too, though, the last time we had a reform movement in a time of prosperity was at the turn of the century with the progressive movement. Reform doesn't come easily with prosperity.
JIM LEHRER: And why is that?
JOAN HOFF: You're too complacent.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Doris, that goodness - good times never, never spawned reform?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it can. I mean, I think, as Joan was saying, certainly at the turn of the century it was a good time and yet you had Teddy Roosevelt, you had the progressive movement, you had people in churches, people in homes, you had muckraking journalists, all of whom were working together to get minimum wage, maximum hours, lots of good stuff happened. It can happen. It happened before; it can happen again.
JIM LEHRER: Well, we have to let this happen, and thank you all very much and Happy New Year to all of you.