Why 1995 is the Year that Created the Future


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How did Timothy McVeigh, O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Netscape IPO all shape the word we live in today? American University professor of journalism W. Joseph Campbell sat down with Reason TV's Nick Gillespie to discuss the misunderstood, often nostalgized, and wildly underappreciated decade of the 1990s in his new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began

Campbell argues that the last years of the millenium were much more than a "holiday from history" as we awaited the terror attacks of 9/11. From the dawn of the Internet to the post-Cold War complexities of foreign policy, the 1990s set the stage for the most enduring issues of the 21st century.

Runs about 26 minutes.

Produced by Todd Krainin. Interview by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Meredith Bragg and Krainin.

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reason: You talk about 1995, 20 years ago, as a clear starting point for contemporary life, a hinge moment, and the first year of the 21st century. What do you mean by that?

Campbell: Well it was a year of multiple watersheds really, and these watersheds add up to the recognition that this was a decisive year, this was the inaugural year really of the 21st century. It was the year in which we can recognize a lot of the elements of what we live with now, so it was really the year the future began, and the watersheds that I discuss in the book include the rise of the Internet. Now the Internet wasn't invented in 1995, but it entered the mainstream consciousness.

reason: Talk a little bit about the signal events that made it. The web had been around a few years, the Internet for a couple of decades, but, so there was, for instance, the Netscape IPO.

Campbell: That's right. The Netscape IPO in August of 1995, was really a moment that illuminated the web for a lot of people. Netscape of course made a fantastic browser, and it was very popular. The company had only been in existence for a year and a half when it had this IPO, and it went through the roof literally, and the shares were incredibly important and valuable, and Netscape showed that some people could make money on the internet, but more importantly, it illuminated the web for a lot of people who weren't familiar with it and weren't aware.

reason: It seems so long ago, because Netscape's fortunes—we might as well be talking about A&P or Sears Roebuck or something.

Campbell: Exactly. The trajectory of Netscape was even briefer than that. It was from like 1994 to 1999. So it really was meteoric, and it became a terrific property. It was a terrific company. And it embraced a lot of the swagger and potential of the web.

reason: Marc Andreessen, one of the co-founders of Netscape. If Jim Morrison was the ultimate, first real rock star, Andreessen was the first real web star.

Campbell: Exactly. And I wish I had said that for the book. It happens to be accurate. He really was. And he was really in his early 20s, just out of college when he co-founded Netscape. He and his partners recruited some of his buddies from the University of Illinois, where he had developed a browser before coming to California to start up Netscape, and these guys made a new browser that was wildly popular.

reason: These guys were somewhat trenched in history. They were coming out of a tradition, but it was mostly that they were young and looking forward and weren't going to play by the old rules. 

Campbell: In many respects, that's true. And they were kind of setting their own rules, and the Internet allowed people to do that, because nobody knew what this was going to look like. In fact, up until the mid-90s really, they thought the Internet would be a component, a sub element of a broader information superhighway. 

reason: That was also in the mid-90s… People are afraid of change, and the web becoming kind of commercialized and a mass medium, people freaked out, and Congress in 1996 ended up passing the Communications Decency Act as part of the Telecom Act, which would have regulated the Internet effectively like a broadcast network. What happened that that did not take place?

Campbell: Well that piece of legislation, the Communications Decency Act, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and I believe it was a unanimous decision, but I believe it was overwhelmingly unconstitutional and recognized as such, but it was an early an attempt by Congress to begin to grapple with the potential, the deleterious potential of the web, of the new technology, and a lot of people thought this was going to be just a cesspool of pornography and nothing redeeming about it at all. In fact, some of the Congressman and senators behind the Communications Decency Act had very little firsthand familiar with what they were trying to regulate.

reason: that's shocking. That they have no idea what they're talking about. 

Campbell: (laughs) Yeah, you have to pass it to understand what's in it. But it was a real shocking attempt to regulate this emergent technology, and it probably would have strangled it in its infancy. But it was also a moment in which a lot of people who were advocates of the web vigorously opposed these measures and ultimately prevailed. 

reason: Let's talk about some of the other events. You talk about the Oklahoma City bombing. How did that exemplify the end of an old order and the beginning of the contemporary moment.

Campbell: It really did, and it was a shocking attack deep in the American heartland, an attack without warning. And interestingly, the initial reaction to the bombing was that it had to have been Middle East terrorists. The news media really went hard on that angle. So did the FBI. But it turned out to be an act of domestic terrorism with a very small band of disgruntled army veterans.

reason: McVeigh pretty much is the only person who was directly involved, and then he had a couple of associates. 

Campbell: That's right. Terry Nichols was helping him and helped put together the bomb that was the truck bomb that he delivered outside the Oklahoma City federal building, and then there was a third co-conspirator, Michael Fortier, who knew about but didn't say anything to authorities.

reason: But he didn't know exactly when it was going to happen, etc.

Campbell: He knew were McVeigh had targeted, though.

reason: In a similar way, if part of the emergence of the world wide web was the idea that a couple of individuals coming out of nowhere could massively transform the world in a positive way, the Oklahoma City bombing is kind of the dark inversion of that.

Campbell: You can look at it that way for sure. In the immediate aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, U.S. government began to put in place restrictions on American life that have only become since then more apparent, onerous, and even more accepted I think by many Americans. But some of the initial measures that were put in place—the blocking off of two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House to thwart the potential attack of the White House by a truck bomb a la Oklahoma City—and that was done without any forewarning, without any debate at all. It was essentially a secret service directive to protect the president from a potential attack, and that effort to prevent or guard against the prospect of terrorist attacks has become more and more apparent over the years and certainly accelerated after 9/11. 

reason: And it's interesting that the OKC bombing, much more than the first attack on the World Trade Center, which was 1993, that OKC bombing had such an effect, because after the World Trade Center bombing, there wasn't much of an official response.

Campbell: There was some, but it wasn't the intense and prolonged response that we saw in the OKC aftermath that's for sure. Because the OKC bombing had the effect of rejuvenating some federal legislation that really got dormant on anti-terror efforts and some of these measures are very draconian and would allow for the deportation of non-U.S. citizens on the flimsiest of evidence. And so some of this reaction was really intense, and you're right. We did not see that in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center bombing.

reason: One of the other major spectacles you talk about is the O.J. Simpson trial. How does that inaugurate the world we're living in? 

Campbell: You know it was a spectacle, and it spread kind of like a stain across the year. It began in January of 1995 and ended with Simpson's acquittal of the two murder charges in October of 1995—a lasting effect. It introduced to a mainstream audience the potential value of forensic DNA evidence, and this was a key part of the trail. The prosecution's case against O.J. was that they had no murder weapon, no confession, no witnesses. But they did have what they called a mountain of blood evidence, the DNA evidence that clearly pointed to O.J. Simpson's guilt. The defense's strategy was not to challenge the validity of the DNA evidence or science behind it, but actually to challenge the way it was handled, processed, analyzed, and so forth in the laboratory, as well as being collected at the scene, and they were able to demonstrate just how poorly it was done at all those levels, impugning this evidence that made in my view acquittal inevitable. 

reason: Which is all so fascinating that we enter into this phase in which science is going to clear up all the obfuscations of the universe, and at the very moment we're learning how perfect DNA evidence is, we learn there's a human element that renders it unusable. So it's a bizarre kind of irony. 

Campbell: It is. It's an intriguing point. It also had the effect of stimulating efforts and attempts and methodologies to collect this evidence in an proper way so that it could be properly analyzed and properly presented in court. So it cleaned up really the efforts to collect and process this evidence. 

reason: What do you see in the coverage of the trial its legacy to the news media. It helped mainstream the 24/7 news cycle.

Campbell: In a way it did. The case was so unique and so unlike most murder trials, that it's hard to draw a lot of parallels and make a lot of generalities to generalize from this case, but nonetheless, it does remain the standard against which other high-profile prominent murder trials are assessed and inevitably found wanting. If you think in the past 20 years, there have been many murder trials that have been likened to the O.J. trial, but really weren't in terms of the duration, in terms of the sustained media interest, and in terms of the controversies too. None of them really have captured those elements that so define the O.J. trial.

reason: What do you make of the racial dynamics of the O.J. trial? The 90s was an era in which the old racial categories were being exhausted. O.J. himself was in many ways considered an "honorary white person." Tiger Woods emerged as a multi-ethnic [Caplanasian?], the reaction to the verdict was split almost completely down racial lines.

Campbell: That's right. There are a number of reasons for those reactions, and one of the reasons why it was so vivid and so widely noted is that the verdict was announced at a set hour. The judge who presided over the trial in Los Angeles said, well the verdict is in, but we're going to announce it tomorrow at 10 o'clock Pacific time, so everybody in the country really was… The New York Times called it an eerie moment of national communion. The country shut down in anticipation of the O.J. verdicts—not guilty, guilty, and a lot of people were just gathered around TV and radio sets to know the verdict. Not knowing was an impossibility.

reason: And to the real publicity splash of the low speed chase, which kind of inaugurated the media coverage during the NBA Finals when another vast TV audience was in place.

Campbell: Absolutely, and the audience in October of 1995 was even greater and was probably unlike any moment in American history except perhaps the first lunar landing, where everyone know when it was going to happen but nobody knew what the outcome was going to be, and the country essentially shut down. Nobody would get on flights until the verdict. The telephone volume dropped off dramatically. So the Simpson verdict was wildly anticipated, but I think some of the important elements of the reaction and how that was interpreted was probably misinterpreted by the news media as a black-white kind of divide. Not all whites thought Simpson was guilty and not all blacks thought he was not guilty. So there was that element that was not well captured by the news media, and at the same time, Colin Powell was out with a memoir, was doing a book tour, and was called the most popular American of any color by one columnist, so Colin Powell was there, and he was thinking about a run for president in 1996, so you had O.J. on one hand, where reactions seemed to be suggesting there was this national divide along racial lines, and you had Colin Powell on the other, who everyone, black and white, was coalescing around.

reason: And then we had Bill Clinton as the "first black president" too, so it was definitely a hinge moment. 

Campbell: And Clinton was very concerned about the possibility of Colin Powell mounting a campaign against him. Powell eventually decided in November of 1995 that he wasn't going to run.

reason: The Dayton Peace Accords —you use Peter Barnhart's term about the "hubris bubble." What did the Dayton Peace Accords—what did they signal in American culture?

Campbell: Well this was a moment where muscular American diplomacy brought an end to the worst conflict in Europe since the time of the Nazis, since the end of WWII, and that's the war in Bosnia, which 100,000 people were killed in this conflict, this 2-3 year conflict, one that the European powers couldn't resolve despite many efforts to try. The United States, through the good services and talents of Richard Holbrook, who then was an assistant Secretary of State, brought the representatives of the three countries involved—Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia—the heads of state to Dayton, Ohio, to the Wright-Paterson Air Force base and kept them there in essentially radio silence until they thrashed out an agreement to this long war in Bosnia, and that was the first clear major foreign policy success of the Clinton administration, and it really did give the administration a lift. It really boosted the administration's ability to feel good about itself, to bring about a successful conclusion to a thorny foreign policy.

reason: And this was at a time when people were talking about the incredible shrinking presidency in Bill Clinton after he had lost control of Congress in the 1994 election, so he was kind fo evaporating, and this helped bring him back. 

Campbell: That and the government shutdown of mid-November 1995, in which Clinton outmaneuvered essentially Newt Gingrich and the House Republicans and sort of came out on top—at least by public opinion polls. So that happened in mid-November 1995. In the third week of November, there's the Dayton Peace Accords. The accords are initialed in Dayton, signed in Paris amid great pomp and circumstance. Now Clinton did agree to send 20,000 U.S. troops as part of a larger NATO peacekeeping force to Bosnia, which was a very politically risky decision. It turned out well, because no American casualties were counted.

reason: This is kind of what inflated the hubris bubble, right? The legacy then is that, "Ok, well we're America," and you talk about how Clinton didn't use the term "American exceptionalism, but he brought it back in vogue, that all we have to do is come in and star making people talk, and we can fix any problem in any country anywhere. 

Campbell: Essentially. And without us, it's not going to work. Without us, peace in Bosnia is not going to last. Without our presence of troops there, it's not going to happen. So this notion of American exceptionalism—you're right. He didn't call it that, but that's exactly what he was referring to. It really took hold and it undergirded this hubris bubble that began expanding in the aftermath of Dayton, and it was accompanied by a muscular approach to foreign policy, a willingness to use force to achieve foreign policy ends, and we saw this in Iraq in 1998, when Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq to supposedly degrade Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction arsenal. You also saw it in the Kosovo war of 1999. You certainly saw it in the aftermath of 9/11, with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and then in Iraq starting in 2003, so this hubris bubble kept expanding until it didn't burst in the insurgency that the U.S. was totally unprepared for in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. 

reason: Clinton meets Lewinsky—obviously they met in 1995, what is the enduring legacy of that whole story?

Campbell: I think that legacy is still being written. I think part of the legacy is the sharp political cleavage that we see in the country today in terms of the partisanship—Democrat-Republican, left and right. And it's a mistake to say it was only because the impeachment wars of 1998 and 1999 that we have this political division today, but it certainly was a contributing factor. The impeachment votes in December of 1998 were clearly along party lines. The two counts that Congress approved, the House approved, most Republicans favored, most Democrats opposed, and same for the votes to convict or acquit him in the Senate in November of 1999, most Republicans voted to convict him, and most Democrats voted against. And it had no chance of ever getting to the two-thirds level that was needed. But what's intriguing about 1995 in this whole scandal was: If it were not for the government shutdown of mid-November 1995, Clinton and Lewinsky would have never had an opportunity to get close. She was a nominal White House intern at the time, and because of the shutdown, most White House staffers, as well as most federal employees were sent home or stayed home. They were furloughed. And into this breached into the White House entered the cadre of interns who filled the jobs of answering the phones and doing whatever had to be done to keep the place functioning.

reason: You mention in the book that Lewinsky believed that Clinton's actual White House girlfriend had been furloughed.

Campbell: (laughs) That's right. She was under the impression that he had another girlfriend, that she was like a temporary fill-in. Her assignment was in the chief of staff's office, which is down the corridor from the oval office. Had it not been for that shutdown, she would have never had the opportunity to get close.

reason: I can remember when Clinton took office, people were like, "He's not taking the office of president seriously." And there was a whole flap about his weak military salute to people and stuff like that. And then the Lewinsky incident really changed the picture of the president. Everybody knows that presidents have behaved poorly in their personal lives, but this was inescapable, and it was on TV. Is that part of this legacy, that in many of the things you're talking about here, established authority is kind of taking it on the chin in many of the events you mention in 1995. Is that part of the legacy of Clinton meeting Lewinsky? 

Campbell: It could be. I think another legacy of Clinton meeting Lewinsky is that we know it's very difficult to impeach a president, and we're not going to be doing this again for the kind of misconduct that Clinton was guilty of. He clearly perjured himself in a federal deposition and probably committed obstruction of justice too, which are akin to the crimes that Richard Nixon was forced out of office for. He really obstructed justice in the Watergate scandal, but that was an order of magnitude more serious than what Clinton did. 

reason: He resigned before he was going to face all of that too, which is part of the fascinating of Clinton is—just stick it out. If you can outlast your enemies, you can hang on no matter what.

Campbell: And he had the good fortune, Clinton, of having enemies who were so bungling and so inept that they in effect became his allies. He ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992 for the presidency. Bush by then was kind of out of touch and perceived widely as such. In 1996 for reelection, Clinton ran against Bob Dole, who was like 73 years old and not the most vigorous Republican.

reason: Who had pledged to only serve one term.

Campbell: And then Kenneth Starr, who was the independent council who investigated Clinton's misconduct also was kind of tone deaf and didn't have the political skills or wiliness of Clinton and was clearly outmaneuvered by him. 

reason: Is the real legacy of the Clinton presidency is to just keep doing what you're doing?

Campbell: If you have the skills to be able to maneuver that way, I think so. And I'm not sure Obama's quite as politically skilled as Clinton. I mean, he is plowing ahead, and his popularity seems to be rising a bit, but we're talking about Clinton in the 60s of approval rating late in his second term, and we don't see that at all with Obama. 

reason: When will we know that the 90s have ended? 

Campbell: We need a little bit of critical distance to make that determination. It could have been that it ended with 2001. Some people make the argument that the 90s became—I'm not a serious subscriber to this, but it's an intriguing case—that the 90s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, signaling the end of communism in Eastern Europe. And then the 90s continued until September of 2001 with the terrorist attack of that day, so that could be a way in which you're looking at the 1990s. The 90s are so popular in some popular cultural kind of way that it seems like you hear often references to "the 90s are back." There's 90s nostalgia that seems to be very strong.

reason: The 1950s, particularly by conservatives the 1980s, the 1950s became this decade when everything was great. Women stopped working, which was good for conservatives, people stopped getting divorced, the economy boomed, there were no problems, kids were respective of their elders, and yet if you go back and look at the 1950s, it's a decade of Catcher in the Rye, of The Wild One, of Rebel Without a Cause, of Why Johnny Can't Read, of Growing Up Absurd, of the Beatniks, and of absolute moral and mental and urban chaos. And then other decades, like the 70s are seen as generally negative, but there was a lot of really fascinating stuff going on economically in terms of deregulation of airlines and railroads and trucking, as well as a lot of lifestyle experimentation which people now would see as a good thing. What makes a decade be seen through rosy-colored glasses or through very dark glasses? 

Campbell: That's a very good question. The passage of time helps explain that. The zeitgeist of the 90s is still being written. You're right, the zeitgeist of the 50s was this placid time when everyone was sort of at peace and prosperity reigned—you have sort of that too with the second half. The country's largely at peace, the economy's booming, there's this new fascinating technology that everyone's getting into… It was a great time. But there are other folks—Charles Krauthammer, for example, calls the 90s a "holiday from history" mostly saying that to excoriate Clinton and his policy on terrorism, but still, I think "holiday from history" is probably an exaggeration too. It was not that simplistic obviously. There were a lot of important major issues that we're still grappling with today—everything from foreign policy issues to the rise of the Internet.

reason: And we're going to be talking about net neutrality, which 20 years later is another attempt by the government to regulate or constrain the Internet according to its vision of what is fair and right. 

Campbell: Absolutely. These attempts to label a decade tend inevitably to be simplistic, superficial, and misleading. So I don't think the zeitgeist of the 90s is yet written, and it's certainly not a holiday from history. It's certainly not the time in which nothing much happened and we were kind of beginning to set ourselves up for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.