In The Best of Times
, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Haynes Johnson follows his illuminating, bestselling overview of the Reagan years, Sleepwalking Through History
, with a chronicle of America in the '90s, a time he finds both highly consequential and infuriatingly paradoxical.
Johnson divides his ambitious social history of an America at its "zenith" of power and influence into four intertwined sections. "Technotimes" opens with the Kasparov/Big Blue chess match, and quicksteps through the dizzying advances in computer science and bio-technology, including the Human Genome Project, cloning, and genetically modified crops. "Teletimes," easily the strongest and most disturbing section, uses the "scandalous spectacle" of the O.J. Simpson trial to illustrate the inescapable influence of the mass media and the metastasizing cult of celebrity. "Scandal Times" is primarily an extended retelling of the Monica Lewinsky affair and its squandering (in Johnson's eyes) effect on the Clinton presidency, while "Millennial Times," calling on polls and interviews with a crosscut of college students, is a statistical and personal- opinion snapshot of America in full end-of-century stride. Johnson juxtaposes narrative summary with capsule biographies of the famous (Bill Gates) and the obscure (Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider--visionaries of hypertext, the World Wide Web, and the Internet). Johnson's methodology is commendable. He inserts personal biases lightly (sometimes too tepidly), preferring to present many sides of issues and ask questions rather than opine. One serious weakness is the book's woefully inadequate endnotes.
Though The Best of Times has a tendency to overreach, sometimes scurrying past subjects rather than studying them, it is an informative, worthy, and accessible summary of contemporary American society. Johnson has created a literate time capsule, one whose value will increase greatly with each passing year. --H. O'Billovitch
From Publishers Weekly
As he did with the 1980s in Sleepwalking Through History: America in the Reagan Years, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Johnson reevaluates what happened to America in the '90s and paints a warts-and-all portrait that may shock many Americans and force others to review the new millennium's values. Picking up where he left off in Sleepwalking, Johnson describes the 1990s as "an era characterized by accumulation of wealth and self-indulgence." He then delves into the events that brought us to where we are today, a country split so evenly culturally, politically and economically that the last presidential election ended in a dead heat. Johnson casts a cynical eye on what he sees as a nation of voyeurs, fixated on reality shows, the Internet, celebrities, screaming pundits and with an utter contempt for privacy.He begins his quest in 1990 with a stagnant America stuck in a recession and adrift politically. Change starts to come with the birth of the quintessential information tool, the Internet clearly the event of the decade in Johnson's view. He then goes on to the one event that most pointedly revealed the U.S. as a celebrity-obsessed society: the O.J. Simpson trial. In blistering prose, Johnson describes the Kato-Kaelining of America: the ubiquitous talking heads on TV, the "disgraceful attack talk-radio programs" that proliferated at this time, "and a media that focused more on trivial concerns, on scandals and celebrities." In retrospect, it seems the country was ripe for Bill Clinton. "I've tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean," the president told Dick Morris, according to the Starr Report, "but sometimes I slipped up and with this girl I just slipped up." Clinton's "slip-up" gave the ultimate smoking gun to his enemies. Johnson traces the right wing's paranoia about Clinton from Whitewater to the death of Vince Foster, to Travelgate and Filegate, and asserts that there was no wrongdoing on the president's part. Johnson's parade of characters includes the usual dreary suspects: Ken Starr, the special prosecutor whose office, according to Johnson, perpetrated "a disgraceful episode in the annals of American jurisprudence"; Monica Lewinsky, touchingly ingenuous one moment, scheming the next; Linda Tripp, who comes across here, as she appeared to many at the time, as a sordid character; and, of course, the news media, caught in a frenzy that, according to Johnson, "is motivated by a desire to become the next Woodward and Bernstein, to discover scandal where in fact none exists." The encouraging news? The American people didn't buy the media hype. Johnson defines the schism among Beltway Washington, the media, and the American public: "From beginning to end," Johnson writes, "the American people display great maturity and sound judgment as they assess the scandal being reported so incessantly and excessively. And from the beginning, the overwhelming public reaction stands in stark contrast to the view of the scandal as reported form the political insiders of Washington.'' America from 1990 to 2001 from impeachment to recession, the rise of the Internet to the fall of Nasdaq, and the upheaval of the 2000 elections is covered in startling detail by Johnson. He has written a magnetic book that every thoughtful American will want to read. 150,000 printing; BOMC main selection; History Book Club selection; author tour.
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