The new 'Roaring '90s,' warts and all

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The new 'Roaring '90s,' warts and all

This retrospective of the Clinton years is an alternately painful, enraging and absorbing book. Somewhat grudgingly, I concede that the author, Haynes Johnson, is more often on the mark than wide of it.

Instant histories have pitfalls, and some of Mr. Johnson's descriptions and comments seemed at first reading to betray the liberal bias that conservative commentators are always attributing to veterans of The Washington Post, including Mr. Johnson.

But as savage as Mr. Johnson can be -- an arch footnote, for example, that says Linda Tripp had not had sexual relations for seven years but Mr. Johnson would leave that to psychologists to interpret -- he is equally savage in flaying Mr. Clinton's attackers and the former president's lack of personal ethics.

Mr. Johnson describes the digital technology revolution, media excesses and assorted social trends and the 2000 election ?not bad choices for defining the decade -- in addition to his description of the assorted Clinton excesses and the equal excesses of his pursuers.

He documents those latter excesses tellingly, with excerpts from transcripts of some questioning by prosecutors that truly do make a reader wonder if the government was running amok. But as in Ms. Tripp's example above, Mr. Johnson seems on occasion to revel in the very excesses he rails against. His long description of the O.J. Simpson affair, for example, seems nearly as tabloid-like as the media coverage he sees as a sign of the decadent times.

And what did all the sound and fury mean? This is no "quickie" book rushed into print; Mr. Johnson assembled a wealth of detail and sifted it thoroughly. But his and our view of the long-term impact of the decade's side shows is still fuzzy. Perhaps 9/11 did change everything.


by John Hoog
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