“The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s” (St. Martin’s Press, Thomas Dunne Books), by Gil Troy
Remember the 1990s? Headlines and cultural touchstones ranged from the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Oklahoma City bombing to “Harry Potter,” the “Macarena,” Nirvana and “Titanic.” It was the dawn of the Internet age, the first time most Americans used email or ordered something from Amazon.
It was also, as a new book by presidential historian Gil Troy proclaims in its title, “The Age of Clinton.”
Bill Clinton served two terms as president in the 1990s, a decade he described as a “bridge” to the 21st century. He was proud of his record in office: budget surpluses, a booming economy, falling crime. More people owned homes, fewer people were on welfare, diversity and tolerance were championed. The decade was defined by peace and prosperity, and to some extent, Americans took that for granted — though it now stands in sharp contrast to the first 15 years of the 21st century, defined as they were by 9/11, war and the Great Recession.
So why do we look back on Clinton’s era with such ambivalence and maybe even disgust? Troy argues, in a remarkably non-partisan fashion, that Clinton’s personal flaws and ethical blind spots not only tarnished his place in history, but also tarnished the country. “He left the country politically deadlocked,” Troy writes, pointing to the increased polarization of the electorate and the red state-blue state divide that began under Clinton but has only intensified in the years since. The Monica Lewinsky scandal was the nadir of Clinton’s presidency, of course, but Troy dispassionately documents — without snark or overstatement — that it was merely the tawdriest of many instances of Clinton’s poor judgment, reckless behavior and entitlement.
“Bill Clinton brought joy, exhilaration, exaltation, inspiration to the American people; but he also brought shame, anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion and despair,” Troy writes.
“The Age of Clinton” lacks the lyricism, scholarliness and in-depth approach of a Doris Kearns Goodwin-style presidential portrait. And at times, Troy’s book reads like a clip job, an endless list of pop-culture trivia punctuated by quotes from Newsweek. But at its best, it’s a fun romp through the decade and an intelligent way of understanding the cultural context and legacy of Bill Clinton’s era.