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Essayists’ Review 2000

The NewsHour's essayists review the year 2000.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Tonight, as in years past, we bring together our regular NewsHour essayists for some end of the year reflections. They are Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service; Jim Fisher of the Kansas City Star; New York author and writer Roger Rosenblatt; Los Angeles author and writer Anne Taylor Fleming; and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. Welcome to you all, and let's start with you.

    Anne, let's start with you. What, if anything, will the year 2000 be remembered for?

  • ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING:

    Well, I think probably the end of it certainly has to be the election, and all of the contretemps that went on about it. I think, though, probably also the economy; the beginning wobbles, the dot-com sort of fail-out, the first thoughts that the cyberspace, the whole revolution in the economy, isn't exactly what we thought. That may be more lingering, in fact, than any thought about the election. I think it will also be remembered for a, you know, an election of Al Gore that didn't happen, sort of a collapsing campaign. And it might also be filled with some real nostalgia for Bill Clinton. I think that the country, while very ambivalent for him, is really gearing up to miss him and his brain big time.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Roger, your thoughts about the year 2000.

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    My guess is that it will be remembered for the Genome Project and not just what the project did in terms of the predictive value of medicine and human health and the data of what we're made of but, in an odd way, the Genome Project encourages our recreation always of mystery which interests me. In other words, every scientific discovery, every major one, as this one clearly was, delimits mystery so that the soul is called into question and other mysteries about the body. The more data we have… even consciousness, now, can be accounted for, but when that happens, the culture usually compensates. All the movies that we've seen about talking to dead people or visits of aliens– whether they're silly or whether they're moving– are, I believe, in some way a reaction to the scientific delimiting of mysteries so we create mysteries in other ways. So one of the things that interests me about this year is that phenomenon and one of the things I think for which it will be remembered is the Genome Project.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Clarence, your thoughts. Anywhere from politics and the economy, to science and mystery.

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    Yeah, there's so much, you know? Trying to remember this year without remembering politics is like trying to ignore that elephant in the room or that huge donkey. But you know, this year may be not remembered for something that we're already starting to forget, which is how this year started out, with a great deal of fear about how the year was going to start out. Remember Y2K?

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Y2K. ( Laughs )

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    The breakdown, the meltdown? There was all the nervousness, all the apocalyptic fear and loathing that just faded, just evaporated when the year started out in quite a lovely fashion. I think what's more significant is we will remember the year 2000 for being the year 2000, for being that marker between centuries. Compared to 1900, it has been a great century of progress to quote the title of a great Chicago World's Fair that occurred during this century. I saw a lot of hope. You know, the economy was bustling along for most of the year. The crime rate was down the lowest it's been in decades and continued to decline this year. The teen pregnancy rates drained. All these seemingly intractable problems, we started to get a handle on them. It seemed like there was a sense of ease which, in a way, contributed to all the viciousness of the fighting over the election and the post- election like, you know, like the old saying about academic disputes that the fighting is so vicious because the stakes are so small. In a way, there was a sense underlying it all that we will listen to the Supreme Court even if we don't agree with them.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Jim Fisher, your thoughts.

  • JIM FISHER:

    What struck me about 2000 was so few stories that actually touched America. The Firestone/Bridgestone story is one that I had to really wrack my mind to think of. What hit me was the absolute self-indulgence of the media that took over the news and the airwaves, in early January until mid-December we were absolutely bombarded — not with the ordinary voices of– except on occasion– of ordinary Americans, but the so- called gas-bags or chattering class. It became, I think, almost self- defeating in the sense that 50% of Americans refuse to exercise their franchise to vote, and once we got to the end of the year in November, I think many people were so turned off that I wonder if this isn't going to rebound on the press, that this constant looking for scandal or some way to hit you between the eyes isn't going to drive people away. And I truly worry about not only newspapers but you see these tremendous losses in the people watching television. I got so towards the end Loony Tunes became my favorite show and my favorite politician was Foghorn Leghorn.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Richard, to you; your thoughts about 2000 and what stands out.

  • RICHARD RODRIGUEZ:

    I agree with Jim that there was… The glass may be half- empty, in the sense that half of America didn't vote. But I've been struck with the recreation of America that is going on around us. Here in California we discovered sometime this year that the majority population now is the minority population; that is, there is no majority population. The country seems to anticipate this change. They're probably a generation away. Participation in the census this year has been very high, particularly among immigrant populations. That seems to me an encouraging note. I've noted also that an African- American has been named secretary of state. We don't even have a way of describing the significance of the event because although I just called him an African- American, Colin Powell describes himself in his own autobiography as African, Caribbean, Indian, Anglo-Saxon, Scots-Irish, and we continue to call him black. But clearly something new is forming in America, appropriate to the new century. I noted, or rather, I've been hearing from east coast twits of the Washington sort that the new President can't speak English very well. But they haven't noted that this new President speaks Spanish. That seems to me significant because so few American Presidents have spoken a second language and that this new incoming President is speaking Spanish at precisely the time that the new Mexican President Vincente Fox is saying in English, or calling in English, for the end of a border between north and south.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Anne, pick up on that point that Richard just makes. Do you agree… Do you see that really our society is changing before our eyes and, in some ways, for the better, even though they don't recognize it?

  • ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING:

    Yeah, I think it's a very good point. Maybe we're more conscious of it out here in California where he and I both are. I definitely feel it. And you can see it even in the culture of literature. This year there was a wonderful book written by a young…Junta LaHare — of Indian distraction called the "Interpreter of Maladies" — wonderful new voices in literature that are immigrant voices. I think it's sliding in in a way now that– Richard is absolutely right– that we're almost unconscious of, but that there is an acceptance of it. I feel it very definitely here in a very, very positive way. I think we also should take note of Joseph Lieberman on the ticket. I mean, that was a huge step forward. There was real thought… These much derided chattering classes that we keep talking about, ourselves obviously excluded, kept saying there was going to be an anti-Semitic backlash or they were gearing up for one. It didn't happen. One of the nice things, I think, back to the point that Jim made is I think the country is increasingly so far ahead — in its evolution, psychic, spiritual, moral– of the media and that they are working things out in ways that we're all speaking to, that the media misses. They blow things up. They have dramas and traumas, and everything is black and white. The country is making its way in very positive ways, I think. The one thing I do think, though, is that I do think that in terms of the glass half-empty right now that there's a great deal of economic fear in the under classes, or what passes for them, that we're going to have to face in the New Year. And along with the positive, which is this evolution and the acceptance of different people and different colors… And the fact that, you know, any day in my life I turn on a station and people are speaking Spanish. – and I now feel apologetic because I don't. I think that's a very positive sign.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Roger, evolution and also apprehension?

  • ROGER ROSENBLATT:

    Well, I like the point about the media blowing things out of proportion and Anne's point about people being ahead of it. Something like that must be true because all of us will remember that, by far, the greatest story of the year 2000 involved Uncle Lazaro, Marisleysis, Elian, and the Fisherman. I miss the Fisherman so much. None of us has mentioned the Elian Gonzalez story, yet it dominated the news seemingly forever, and that was because some discrimination was made when everything settled down between what was significant and what was insignificant. Some of the things we might consider of importance, either evolutionary or revolutionary, don't occur in this country. There's an ongoing story of which this year was an instance in Africa– we were watching an entire continent die quite silently because it's a dog that doesn't bark. You're not paying attention to that story. Or the remarkable story in Yugoslavia where the people, yes again, the people inserted their "yes" again, overthrew a tyrant, and established a democracy — or on the sad side, and the continuously difficult side, the Middle East which comes together, comes apart. And all of these things are evolutionary and fluctuate within a single year. You never know how they turn out. But they do vie for the important story of the year.MARGARET WARNER: Clarence, go back to the point that Richard and Anne were making, since someone has to speak for the east and the Midwest at least.

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    Thank you. Especially of the Washington chattering classes.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Or twits, I think someone called us.

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    We'll let that go by.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It's very cold here now, Clarence. We're all the chattering class.

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    That's right. Roger's part of the East Coast as well.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Do you think, in a very positive sense, that our country really is making this evolution to a multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic society without as much, perhaps, angst as sometimes we assume there is.

  • CLARENCE PAGE:

    That's the way it's supposed to be. By the way, I'll also add to the previous list. Ha Jin, Chinese American writer, won the Pulitzer and the pen- Faulkner award this year. I mean, we can go on and on. Yeah, you know, the funny thing about news, Margaret, is that, you know, news is what happens when things aren't working the way they're supposed to. ( Laughs ) When things are working the way they're supposed to, it's not news. The exception is, of course, tragedies like Roger mentioned. We don't have TV cameras in Africa covering that tragedy there, often enough, anyway. We don't have cameras in the third world often enough. However, we do find… The reason why stories like Elian get such exaggerated play is because we're not at war right now. We're not in a major depression. We're not in a state of national crisis. So with this proliferation of 24-hour news channels, now, and all the other media on the Web, et cetera, we have to really inflate news now to get an audience. A new era is starting there, for better or for worse. In some cases, I would agree for worse, but we're getting better. You know, my colleague Jim Fisher mentioned earlier feeling great dismay over the lower voter turnout. But let's look closer to that. Black turnout this time hit a record and was actually higher than white turnout in Florida and a number of other places, Illinois, and that's something that is a cause for celebration. When people have a reason for participation in a democratic society, they participate. I'll be delighted, Jim, to bet you a Kansas city steak against a Chicago pizza when we get together in four year– deep dish– when we get together four years from now, I think we're going to see more participation because of the excitement that was generated by this election.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, Jim, do you think… Do you feel optimistic going into 2001 or do you sense, also, the apprehension and the little anxiety economically that Anne was talking about?

  • JIM FISHER:

    Well, I think the… It was a "blah" year in a sense. If you take the politics and a couple of high-profile stories away. I mean, most people that I've talked to seem to be just watching and seeing what's going on. But as Anne said, the demise of some of the dot-coms, which in effect means that people are seeking a niche for themselves. You know, so they don't have to go to work for GM or the "Kansas City Star," they want to do something on their own. I ran into a story the other day that… I don't think most people realize that there are people out there that are not dot-commers that are seeking that kind of thing. This guy's name was Jim and he raises pastured chickens. Now, if you don't know what pastured chickens are, they're chickens raised on pastures and compared to what you buy in the supermarket, they're steak to baloney. He's a dry waller, which is not what you would call a high-tech profession.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    What's a dry waller? You mean someone that puts up dry wall?

  • JIM FISHER:

    He puts up dry wall, and he's doing very, very well selling chicken. And he's driving… He's not going to drive Tyson or Purdue out of business, but if you've ever eaten… That was probably my big experience in the year 2000, was eating a pastured chicken, which tastes like the ones grandma used to wring their necks in Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1945.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So, Richard, I'll end with you. What wonderful experience are you looking forward to in 2001? What do you think we ought to look forward to?

  • RICHARD RODRIGUEZ:

    Well, I just remembered this year, at this time of the year last year, we were so optimistic about– and apprehensive– about Y2K, about the future– the technological future– everyone was buying into the market. We were being told by 20-year- olds that we were heading into an economic future that had no precedent. And that, don't worry, that this company or that company wasn't making a profit, that was the old economy. Now we seem to be completely at the other end of expectation. There is this pessimism on the part of those in business and technology that maybe these companies are not worth very much. It seems to me what's worrisome right now is that we don't know how to moderate our feelings very well. It's appropriate almost to a drug culture. One day we're on uppers, the other day we're on downers. We begin the year on uppers talking about the great, great, great new future. We ended the year on downers talking about the worthless stock. It seems to me that what America seems to need right now is some calmer way to proceed, a way that does not extend in such extremities all the time. It's rather like having a teenaged son who keeps you awake at night because before he goes to bed he talks to you about suicide. Then he comes down the next morning and he's whistling and optimistic about a football game he's going to. Somehow America has that adolescent quality right now. And the thing that worries me most is that we have not found some way to moderate our soul.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Well, Richard and all of you, thanks so much and happy New Year.