December 30, 1999
The NewsHour historians discuss the events of 1999 and how they will shape history.
TERENCE SMITH: As this year winds to a close, we get some perspective on 1999 from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is historian Richard Norton Smith, director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Welcome to you all.
Doris, historically, what was significant or important about 1999?
|Good, but "uninteresting" times|
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, in trying to think about what the most important events were, you realize there weren't any absolutely completely momentous events, and maybe that was a blessing. President Kennedy once said in the midst of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights demonstrations on the street, that there was an old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," which wasn't a good thing, meaning famines, wars, catastrophes. We didn't have that in this last year, and maybe that was a blessing in a certain sense. I guess I would pick the resilience of the presidency as an institution as one of the more important events. You start the year with the president in humiliation, having been impeached by the House of Representatives, and yet, the institution persevered; it remained strong during Kosovo, strong during the negotiations with the Middle East, peace with Irish peace, strong in terms of its authority that still hasn't been totally undermined, and I think the framers once again deserve credit for having created something that the people could support and that it shows how extraordinary bounce there is in that institution at the end of this year.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Norton Smith, what jumps out at you?
RICHARD SMITH: I think this is the year with pragmatism and return to American public life. It's almost as if we were all singed a bit by the ugliness surrounding the Lewinsky affair and the impeachment process. And I think politicians have woken up to what most Americans have always believed, which is that the clash of ideas is not to be confused with a Holy War. I also think give Bill Clinton some credit. I think just as his natural activism was in some ways tempered by the Reagan consensus, the view that was suspicious of, if not hostile, to government, I think there's been a mini realignment during the Clinton presidency helped no doubt by the economic boom, so that at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency there's much less reflexive hostility to government and the best evidence of that is not in the Democratic Party but in the Republican Party. Just as Margaret Thatcher's great achievement was not revamping the conservatives but creating new labor to come to terms of her market reforms. So if you look at the leading Republican candidates for President, George W. Bush and John McCain, while both thoroughly conservative, neither one of them reflexively looks upon government as the enemy.
TERENCE SMITH: No longer antigovernment in that regard. Haynes Johnson, as you review the year, what strikes you?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think just following up on what they've just said, the idea that we're ending this year in the glow of the best times the United States has ever experienced economically -- unparalleled, unopposed in the world -- scientifically, medically, technology -- in all kinds of ways, and this sense of the greatest exchange and gathering of wealth in the nation's history. We're in the midst of this boom, and it's still continuing. And I think it affects a lot of the things that both Michael -- I mean Doris has said and that Richard had said just a minute ago -- that it has a sense here that the ugliness of the past is painted over by the glow of good times.
TERENCE SMITH: Michael, what do you think?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, a lot of the economic prosperity that Haynes is talking about has been driven by technological change over the last ten years. One of the biggest technological changes has been the Internet and the World Wide Web. Here we are in 1999, we're on the 30th anniversary of this year of the Internet, which grew out of an arcane Defense Department project never intended to grow into what we now see, and then ten years ago the World Wide Web began. All of this happened accidentally. It wasn't like Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb and that going on to affect history for the next century. This was something that was designed to be something else, and suddenly has become this huge mechanism, as we're seeing very much this year, of not only information but also commerce. And it sort of led me to pause and think about the fact there is enormous downside and upside. The upside: You can have libraries in every town, rich or poor, worldwide audiences for all sorts of wonderful ideas, but also worldwide audiences for the first time in human history for hate groups, other groups, without a gatekeeper. And it puts a lot of burden on all of us, I think, and this is what we'll see in the next century to begin to distinguish between what is reliable, what is not; what are good ideas and bad ideas. That tests us as a democracy.
TERENCE SMITH: Doris Goodwin, Andy Kohut has a poll out from the Pew Research Center this week that says the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado was the story most closely followed by Americans this year. What does that say to you?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think that is probably absolutely true, and the reason why is that symbolically, I think what that shooting represented to many Americans was the fear that in some ways, we've lost childhood for our children, that there was a time some decades ago when children were not miniature adults. They led a rather protected life away from violence, sexuality, away even from divorce, in neighborhoods where there were people of authority, whether it was a parent at home or a neighbor that knew them or even a corner drugstore who knew who they were, who could take care of them, who could watch out if they went over the boundaries. And I think what Columbine symbolized to many people was not simply the fact that certain people shot other people, but that all of our kids are now exposed to that kind of level of violence and adult world that they weren't before. And the trends that have led to it, whether it's two parents working or whether it's the media or whether it's just parts of our modern culture being more fragmented, are deep trends that are not easily going to be overturned. So I think it struck a huge chord, and I would argue socially it was the most important event of the decade in that sense.
TERENCE SMITH: Haynes.
|Vulnerabilities amidst economic strength|
HAYNES JOHNSON: It's the other side of the good times, because beneath all this roar of success is a lot of vulnerabilities in American life. We see it reflected in these things. We still have racism, we still have poverty, we still have haves and have-nots. Our system is, despite the impeachment, didn't leave perhaps the scars, but it certainly left a distaste for the political system. It raises questions about how you deal with these kinds of really long- term problems.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard, do you see these other issues playing into that pragmatism you were talking about before?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah, and I would disagree a little bit, certainly not with the importance that most people attach to Columbine, but I think if you look out -- it's dangerous, 30, 40, 50 years from now -- and ask, "what in this year foreshadows the debate down the road?", I would suggest the Vermont State Supreme Court ruling that all but legalized same-sex marriage. And what I would suggest is that at the end of a century that has been about belatedly keeping promises that we made to ourselves at the beginning of the republic... Remember, a hundred years ago, people could not elect senators directly, women couldn't vote, African-Americans had been disenfranchised. This has been a century in which -- too slow for some, too fast for others -- America has in fact kept more of those promises. But more than that, I think we're moving beyond tolerance, which is a kind of grudging acquiescence in what we cannot change, to a genuine acceptance and even a celebration of the strengths that lie within our diversity. And I think this is a debate that has only begun, but it's one that will probably tend to shape politics, as well as our culture, for years to come.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you see it that way, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, to put it in ideological terms, I think historically we may look back on this period and say that the conservative movement of the last 30 years has run its course. In the late 1960s there was a feeling that big government had become too strong, there were too many taxes, and also we wanted to defeat the Soviets. All those things have now been accomplished. There is a big surplus, and usually in history, there is a cycle. When people get rich and when purposes like that are accomplished, then you move on to deal with issues like health and education and poverty. And the interesting thing is that the issues you see dealt with by both sides in this presidential campaign are much more traditional almost liberal democratic issues. It's hard to see that that would have been the case at almost any other time over the last 30 years.
TERENCE SMITH: Doris, you said there were no, you know, huge or central events, but there was of course a war in Kosovo. What is the lasting meaning of that, do you think?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think it will depend in part on whether what President Clinton enunciated after that war what seemed to be a "Clinton doctrine," that the United States would intervene when there was ethnic cleansing or there was a certain kind of genocide going on; if that were to be the first of a series of such interventions, then it's a hugely important event. However, we have not seen us intervening in Russia, where there's been similar ethnic cleansing and similar seeming large numbers of death. So it may be that it was a more pragmatic doctrine than when it was first announced as a moralistic standard.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Haynes, it's also a definition of the future role?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, yes, absolutely, and also it defines wars. The idea you can have a technological war in which American planes and tanks and -- now the ground doesn't affect you any more. It's that technological ability to pinpoint weapons, and nobody gets hurt in the air and we have no casualties, but you win, and it breeds a great deal of hostility toward the United States, the great superpower.
|Science and politics|
TERENCE SMITH: Richard, someone observed recently that the next century might be that of biology, if this was physics and chemistry before us. I wonder what you think of that in terms of genetic research and that sort of thing.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I wish it was a century of politics, which has nothing to do with biology, I suppose. I was a little disturbed by Time magazine's selection of Einstein. No one can argue with the choice of Einstein as person of the century, but it what it really tells me is how relatively insignificant the political process has become, and statecraft in general, seems to be to opinion leaders. I find that disturbing.
TERENCE SMITH: Who would have been your person of the century, Michael?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I would have chosen Winston Churchill.
TERENCE SMITH: You would have chosen Churchill, and Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I like Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill, but I like the choice of Einstein. I think it was a little bit out of the ordinary and a little bit unexpected, but you know, on this idea of the differences that we're now seeing in science and genetic research and so forth, it really comes back to politics because we as a people are going to have to make some very tough political decisions. Whom do you clone? How long do you extend the lives of people, and which lives are extended? And if we are checked out of politics, then those decisions are going to be made by small groups without consulting the American people, and in American history that has usually proven to be pretty bad.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We're on the verge of this stunning moment here where we're going to have diseases banished, genetically implanted things we can create new forms, but we'll live longer. And the price, as Michael says, how do you pay for living to 150? How do you pay for healthcare? How do you pay for who lives and who doesn't, and who gets the advantages of technology? I think it is a scientific, technological era.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Or think about in 1900, the average age was only 47, and it is now 77 -- 30 extra years. And futurists are now predicting we may live to 175 or 200 in the next century. Will you be married for 175 years to the same person? Will you have the same career for that whole period of time, going every day to the same job? It's mind-boggling.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: When you said about being married to the same person, I only wish Hennie Youngman were part of our panel.
HAYNES JOHNSON: We'll clone ourselves here.
TERENCE SMITH: Exactly. All right. That will take us into the new century. Thank you all very much.