The Best of Times

The Relevance of The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson.

While commuting home from work one evening in 2002, I came upon an interview on NPR with the journalist Haynes Johnson, whose book had just come out. I listened to Johnson making a convincing argument that the 1990s, following the demise of the Soviet bloc and “The end of history” (I’m looking at you, Francis Fukuyama), the US media turned inward, diverting funds from international coverage toward more salacious fare, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, the Bobbit case, the O.J. Simpson trial, and Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.

What was the result of this media masturbation? Well, for one, the US citizenry lost all taste for events playing out beyond the country’s borders. No one held the US government’s finger to the fire to account for its mis-dealings abroad.  The Pentagon had, after all, armed and funded the Islamic jihadists in the proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and had subsequently ignored them once the USSR had withdrawn its forces from that country. To be sure, Bill Clinton was not unaware of Osama bin Laden’s existence, and even authorized the bombing of a Somalian aspirin factory in a half-hearted effort to eliminate him (bin Laden was nowhere near the target).

From 1999-2000, I was performing research in Germany, and I followed closely articles in The Economist and the German media.  I noticed that European reporters viewed the consolidation of the Taliban and the rise of al Qaeda with mounting alarm.  Their American counterparts, meanwhile, devoted their energies where the money was, toward enlightening their public about the blue dress.

Today we see the US media outlets—virtually all of them—focusing their coverage almost exclusively on domestic matters in an election year.  President Trump’s politicizing of everything elicits triumphant cheers among his base and sneers of derision among the Left. A  Center no longer exists, as far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, what is China doing while the leader of the free world defends icons of the Confederacy and undermines straight thinking about the virus?  Why, it is inciting border skirmishes with neighboring India and asserting itself militarily in the South China Sea, depredations that threaten stability in a region that has supplanted the Middle East as the next hotbed of global conflict. Once the virus clears and racial tensions in the US subside (highly debatable suppositions), the US may open its eyes to its new status:  that of a pariah superpower in slippery decline. Perhaps an account of the Trump years might be called The Worst of Times: America in the Trump Years.

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