Margaret Warner chats with a panel of NewsHour regulars about the events and issues that shaped our view of the year 1997. They discuss topics including the deaths of Mother Theresa and Diana, Princess of Wales; the President's One America race initiative, and the "Nanny Trial".
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?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 19, 1997:
President Clinton met with leading conservative activists and authors to further his national dialogue on race.
December 3, 1997:
Who are the Promise Keepers and what do they stand for?
December 3, 1997:
President Clinton and his race advisory panel held their first town meeting in Akron, Ohio.
September 1, 1997
With the sudden and violent death of Princess Diana, people in Britain and around the world have spent the past two days assessing the life of the Princess of Wales.
March 27, 1997:
Recent news reports have been filled with the troubling story troubling story of a mass suicide involving a computer-related cult.
An Online NewsHour Forum exploring the mass suicide.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of race relations, religion and In Memoriam
The official site established by the Royal Family.
Year of Emotion?
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?
Year of sentiment...
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?
Age of spectacle.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, I'd say that this is an age of spectacle and not so much emotion and sentiment. It was there, but if it didn't happen, we would create it through these red lights that shine on television. We have this vast electronic culture, more and more entertainment driven, reaching to every corner in the world. So whatever happens is going to be magnified.
Yes, Diana, had an enormous event, but it was also broadcast live and in color around the clock, all over the world, in little villages, and I think you're seeing that more and more, that the void will be filled. I agree with what Michael and Doris said particularly about this period in time in which we are, that there is seemingly the best of times, and yet there are the disconnects that we're not even paying attention to.
MARGARET WARNER: Roger, you've heard your colleagues say they think it's almost more sentiments and spectacle than emotion.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm not sure that there's much of a difference when it's all played out. A lot of the things that happen this year happen at the end of eras. We are at the end of another time. The 1690's had witch hunts, the 1790's ideological upheavals, 1890's vapors and other forms of hysteria. You don't have to go back many years to go back to the ebola virus panic, or Gulf War Syndrome, or the very harmful recovered memory syndrome. These things seem to happen as people head for another age. And then there was the recent detachment from emotion.
There was a time, the time in which all of us on this panel grew up, in which to simulate machines was the end of happiness. That was the worst thing that could happen to somebody. Now we're in an era where people wish to be machines, and the idea of actually becoming a machine, which was anathema before, takes away all the feeling that it's ready to explode. Now we come to Richard's observation that we are in some period of melancholy that needed a vent.
And it could be anything. It could be something important, or it could be something remote. It could be the death of a celebrity like Diana, in whom we were ready to invest Godhead, as we were in other celebrities like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, but it requires their death in order to do it. But I think with Richard there is something serious under this, and I don't think that people necessarily knew why they were grieving Diana, but that doesn't make it any less real or important a feeling.
1997: A political "golden age"?
MARGARET WARNER: Michael, let's move on to the political times, as historians look back on this year. You talked about peace and prosperity. Charles Krauthamer, the columnist, has said we're living in a golden age. Is this a golden age? What will the historians say about the political times and how the political leadership responded?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Here's a the great case, you know. History always depends on hind sight. We do not know today how historians in America 30 years from now might look back on 1997. Yes, it's a moment of peace and prosperity. So was 1927 and so was 1957, but with those earlier years, what historians oftentimes look at is, for instance, Republican presidents of the 20's did nothing to prevent the Great Depression, or how Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 did virtually nothing about civil rights at a time that he could have.
So I think one thing in the future that scholars will look at is in 1997 how much did our political leaders not take this opportunity of this moment of tranquillity, and also a president with huge popularity ratings and use it to address problems in the future in a way that would prevent us getting into great crises perhaps after the year 2000.
A "disconnect" from the dramas of Washington, D.C.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, how do you see the political times in that light?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, I do -- as somebody 2,000 miles away from Washington -- I do feel disconnected from the dramas of Washington just in my everyday life. And my sense is that the political leadership of the country seems to be talking about an America that I don't see around me; whether it's the area of civil rights or the sense of direction that the country is feeling right now economically. It seems to be coming from other quarters, either internationally through global organizations, or it's coming in negotiation at the very lowest levels of society.
The other thing about golden age is that always perplexes us, it's rather like being sort of lonely and depressed at Christmas time; that when you have a golden age and not everything is golden, you begin to wonder what's wrong. And, clearly, what a golden age suggests, of course, is that not all is well with the world around us. People are sleeping in the streets outside the building that I'm in right now. And clearly, that the powers that be, the elites, do not know quite how to handle whatever it is that's going--that seems to be unraveling at the bottom.
Where's the voice of leadership?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think that he's right about that. There's a loneliness along with all the good times. We ended this year with the highest consumer confidence rating in 28 years. The deficit's come down. We're going to have a balanced budget maybe, maybe not. All these things that we were fearing about--the economy is booming--but underneath there's a great deal of anxiety. And I think also what we said earlier, Roger was saying about the passing of a new era, a new age, I think that's part of it. We don't quite know where we're going.
Michael's right; that there hasn't been the voice of leadership to say here's what we ought to be talking about; we ought to be moving toward. Here are the goals that we--there's an unfinished portrait of American society that we aren't even talking about. We're kind of luxuriating in good times.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, do you think this is a fair critique of our political issues? Have there been other times of great peace and prosperity in which political leaders, nonetheless, challenged America?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think that's the really interesting question. I mean, what you saw this year was this strange disconnect between, on the one hand, personal contentment in the polls and very low interest in news events, which really means low commitment to your fellow Americans to what's going on, to trying to do something about the problems of society. And it's true that in periods of peace and prosperity it's harder for leaders. That's what the 20's showed.
But if you don't deal with the problems, as they didn't in the 20's and you had a maldistribution of income in 20's, that led directly to the Depression. You had problems in the 50's, as Michael said, in civil rights that weren't dealt with in that time of peace and prosperity--led to the turbulence of the 60's. But there is a moment--there was certain kind of prosperity in the mid 1960's after Kennedy's tax cut--and you did have Kennedy's death and Lyndon Johnson able to deal with problems in a time of prosperity and before the war in Vietnam heated up in a time of some sort of peace, and so it shows that it is possible for leaders to do. I mean, Lyndon Johnson was able--I must say I look back on him with some kind of respect.
The more you realize it, to get people's attention to poverty, to get people's attention to health care-- obviously Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement held the attention on civil rights. Teddy Roosevelt did it at the turn of the century in a time of peace and prosperity. So it is possible, though it's harder, but not doing it means that we lend ourselves to the problems being still there. They're not going away because no one's thinking about them. Now, I think it's unhealthy for the society to revel in that personal contentment. You hope that they could also care about public affairs, even while they're contented, perhaps even more so if they were challenged to do so.
MARGARET WARNER: Roger, weigh in on this.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm not sure that people are as contented as any of the indices would suggest. And if it's a golden time, it's a golden time in terms of interest rates, or a golden time in terms of the deficit, or in terms of personal income, then I don't think there's much to the gold. It's certainly not a golden time artistically. It's not a golden time ethically. It's not a golden time morally.
People know these things. People are no fools. So then you think even in moments of hysteria, even when there are explosions of emotion that we don't understand, when people do things in vast numbers, it is interesting. And they are trying to tell us something, or they're trying to tell themselves something, and it comes from some wellspring of discontent that probably is yet to be discovered. There is a guy at Diana's funeral, and he was interviewed that morning on television, and he was weeping. And he said he wept today but he did not weep at his own father's funeral. And anybody who says that is saying something very strange, indeed.
One America and race relations.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard, how do you think history might look at this past year in terms of how we dealt with one of the real enduring conditions of the American nation, which is our relationship among the races? I mean, I was struck by what Michael said about the 50's and not paying attention then. That's one of the issues--some might argue--we're not stilling with.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, clearly, Bill Clinton is not--to coin a phrase--is not Lyndon Johnson. But it strikes me that this is both a very good time and a very bad time. Optimistically, I see the races in America quite busy in marrying each other, falling in love with each other, as much as they are at each other's necks. They're at each others' lips too, to be quite frank, and that there is a kind of browning going on in America. I don't mean only the Hispanic--the rise of the Hispanic--but clearly there are children in the world now in America who've never existed, the children of European-Asian marriages, the children of African-Korean, Mexican-German. In that sense of a new messiness of America, I think there's a great deal to celebrate.
The worry that I have is that the official discussion of America, as to races, is so unconnected to them right now. Largely from the White House we have the sort of black and white discussions of the President's Commission on Civil Rights, which really seems mired in politics and policies of the past and does not seem to be able to realize what the change is going on around us. For example, at the University of California here in California, at all eight campuses, you are going to be seeing Asian majorities in the very near future, at which time we should begin to talk about African-Asian relations and not simply black and white America. I think largely Bill Clinton has--unfortunately, John Hope Franklin are black and white Americans--they have yet to discover that television is colored and that, in fact, America exists in many colors, and all of those colors now are playing against each other.
MARGARET WARNER: Haynes, you've written a lot about this subject.
HAYNES JOHNSON: The fragmentation of the society is there. It's clear. The have and have not world is clearly there, as Richard was saying, we've all been saying in a way. Golden age? No, it's not. It's not, and the idea is we in some ways are more disconnected from each other, and the thing that worries me the most, just as one person, is this pervasive disbelief at a time of seemingly good economic conditions in which people don't trust their leaders or their institutions. And we seem to be withdrawing farther and farther into our own little pockets, and we don't seem to know each other as well as we maybe once did in the mythical past.
MARGARET WARNER: And how do you think that plays into the relationship among the races?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think it just exacerbates it. It further alienates and isolates the groups. I mean, I support--Clinton was great to try to say start a dialogue, but the idea of having a few conversations isn't enough. You've got to do this--Doris mentioned Theodore Roosevelt--the idea of the bully pulpit--pushing, running--Lyndon Johnson, storming about poverty, the war on poverty--that's what leadership requires on a daily basis, not an occasional.
MARGARET WARNER: Doris, you want to weigh in on this briefly?
Absense of a citizenry willing to listen.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think one of the difficulties for leadership today is that the bully pulpit is harder to garner. We don't have those events that pull us together as a nation. The state of the union used to be one where everybody watched Roosevelt's fireside chats; everybody listened to the acceptance speeches at the conventions were mobilizing events, and I'm not sure it's just the absence of a leader who can talk.
I think it's the absence of a citizenry that's willing to listen, a media that's willing to put this as a focus, so granted that it's much harder, but on the other hand, that's what leadership's all about. That's what they get paid for. They have to figure out how to get our attention on the problems that really matter. And so far, the race dialogue is a good attempt, but it hasn't made us talk about it at the water coolers, in our office, in our places in the same way he might have hoped it would have.
MARGARET WARNER: Roger, your thoughts on this.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, when Haynes talked about the disconnect, that's when I think the emotionalism came into play this year; that people don't want to be disconnected; it's an uncomfortable condition; it's not a naturally human condition. Biologists will probably tell us it's not biological condition. And there will be occasions where we will get together.
Now, there were such occasions this year. They didn't have the high-mindedness that some of the panel was talking about; they didn't have the high-minded effectiveness in the long run that they should have; but they were kind of explosions or assertions or eruptions of feeling that said whether it's grief or elation or anger or something, we do belong together as a species. We may not be able to get along but we do go along from time to time. And if we're still fragmented after all these years, we still--we also urge in the other direction.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that is one of the things that a leader can address in a tranquil moment like this when he doesn't have to deal with things like war and economic depression in this country. And I hate to start the New Year on a downer, Margaret, but if next year the economy goes south or we get into some terrible crisis over Iraq or Bosnia or Korea or our president and Congress become very unpopular, I think one thing America in the future will say, they will ask, how did we use this tranquil moment?
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you all five very much. And Happy New Year!