A TALE OF TWO DECADES: The Eighties vs. the Nineties

Tuesday, October 23, 2001

We look back at America during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Each decade was dominated by a two-term President and marked by long economic booms. Do these parallels suggest that 1990s were merely a continuation of the 1980s? Or does each decade have a unique place in American history?

Recorded on Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, A Tale of Two Decades.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the last two decades of the twentieth century. The '80s and the '90s were both dominated by two term presidents and both enjoyed long, economic expansions yet the two decades are on something of teeter-totter, those who liked the '80s under Reagan tend to dislike the '90s under Clinton while those who liked the '90s under Clinton tend to think of the '80s under Reagan as the greed decade. How come?

Joining us today, two guests. P.J. O'Rourke is the best-selling humorist. His most recent book is entitled, The CEO of the Sofa. Haynes Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. His most recent book is entitled, The Best of Times, America in the Clinton Years.

Title: A Tale of Two Decades

Peter Robinson: Zeitgeist Studies 101, if you had to live one decade over again, which would you choose the '80s or the '90s? Haynes?

Haynes Johnson: The '90s because I think they really are now so consequential. It's challenged us to our absolute fiber of who we are as a people. They were, you know, marvelous period of innovation and industry and talent, saw squandered opportunities, we floated through the ether, we believed in myths that we'd repealed history. And the dot.com boom was going bigger and bigger and bigger. And it had breeched the market forces for (?) it only went up, never came down. And, of course, people believed that we'd repealed history.

Peter Robinson: And you want to relive that?

Haynes Johnson: No, I want to study it more.

Peter Robinson: Ah, all right.

Haynes Johnson: Maybe I want to change it.

Peter Robinson: All right. So the myth is--myth of Sisyphus twisted for you P.J. Which decade would you take?

P.J. O'Rourke: I have to say the '90s because I met my wife, was married, had…

Peter Robinson: All right. Aside from these marvelous personal developments…

P.J. O'Rourke: The '80s.

Peter Robinson: The '80s.

Haynes Johnson: Love in the '90s and yet…

P.J. O'Rourke: Yes, yes and '80s--it was just so much--just watching America get over the '60s and the '70s, two decades in which I had been deeply and rather shamefully involved. I thought the '80s were, you know, it was an optimistic period but still a period with a lot of struggle. And the struggle came to a nice conclusion. And the I managed to get to Berlin couple of days after the wall came down and gosh, you know, you don't get many moments like that in life.

Peter Robinson: Haynes, let me quote you on the 1980's. This comes from your book, Sleepwalking Through History. We will quote your current book a little later but this is Sleepwalking Through History. "The myth of the '80s was that the United States of America, the greatest power the world has known, a society favored with material riches beyond measure and a political system whose freedoms made it the envy of every nation on earth, had fallen into a state of disintegration and with Ronald Reagan, recaptured what it had lost, optimism, strength, inventiveness, enterprise." Why do you use the word myth?

Haynes Johnson: Well I think actually I would…

Peter Robinson: That is what happened, isn't it?

Haynes Johnson: Yeah, well the myth is that somehow Reagan through his persona and his genius and his Svengali-like talents was able to sort of beat the old commies and end the Cold War and it all started with him. That's the biggest myth we've ever had. Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, all the rest, actually fought the Cold War. I served three years in Korea. Fifty-five thousand people died in Vietnam. That was fighting the Cold War. We committed our resources for fifty years. So the idea--the myth was that Reagan did it all. I would give Reagan much more credit now than I would then. He had a tone and a talent to sort of say and I think he did frighten the Russians at their moment of peril because they were disintegrating economically. But that disintegration had started a long time before.

Peter Robinson: P.J?

P.J. O'Rourke: Arguably with the revolution, the--a myth is only a myth because it contains some sort of element of truth often in a…

Haynes Johnson: I agree with that.

P.J. O'Rourke: …fable sort of way. I'm not a great fan of the great man theory of history. On the other hand, there's no doubt that individual personalities do have an important affect. And I think we were blessed to have Thatcher and Reagan on deck when they were. It was a good thing but probably the same thing would have happened anyway although maybe a little slower. I think…

Haynes Johnson: That's kind of my point.

P.J. O'Rourke: I think, to me, the most important thing about the '80s actually didn't have to do with that. It had to do with the destructiveness of the '60s and the '70s. Finally we were turning the corner after two decades of social disintegration, not political disintegration. It wasn't that great America had suddenly come to halt because Jimmy Carter was kind of incompetent. There was something running through all of Western society, not just the United States that was really ugly during the '60s and '70s. Antinomianism, I think, is Paul Johnson's word. I'm not sure I'm saying that right but it was, you know, there are no rules. I can do anything I want. This is all about me! We saw a little bit of comeback of that in the '90s and I suppose that's why I prefer the '80s in a way to the '90s. I'd rather see us recovering from that under less severe circumstances than post-September 11th I think.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Peter Robinson: Next topic, money. Comparing wealth in the '80s to wealth in the '90s.

Title: Greed is Good

Peter Robinson: Let me quote Michael Lewis, journalist Michael Lewis. "Wall Street during the '80s just seemed like a lot of greedy young men getting rich at other people's expense. Silicon Valley, the source of a great deal of wealth created during the '90s benefited from a trend in the moral climate of money." That's the phrase I'd like to have you address, "a trend in the moral climate of money. In the '80s, people felt guilty for getting rich. In the '90s, people felt guilty for not getting rich. What accounts for this change, this trend in the moral climate of money?

P.J. O'Rourke: I'm not sure I buy it…

Peter Robinson: You don't buy it?

P.J. O'Rourke: …in the first place. No, I don't buy it. I think the '90s is marked by a greater sophistication and understanding of economics. I don't think that people understood as well in the '80s that personal--building of personal wealth is the absolute foundation stone to building the wealth of a society and that there is nothing--it's not a zero sum game. Economics is not a matt--economic growth, wealth building is not a matter of if I eat too many slices of pizza, you have to eat the Dominos box. And I think by the '90s, we had a better understanding of what goes into economic growth. But I think there's one thing that's true in that statement is that in the '90s, we felt we were really onto something that was new and fabulous and wonderful. I wrote a little bit about this--about how it was a bubble. And I said, you know, is the new e-commerce, is the new economy--is it real and is it a bubble? Well it can be both. They're not mutually exclusive. Ask the people who invested in Packard, in Studebaker, in Hudson, in the Baker Electric, in the Stanley Steamer. There's no denying that automobiles changed--completely changed our nation, or railroads for that matter but they also…

Peter Robinson: Lot of people went bust…

[Talking at same time]

P.J. O'Rourke: A lot of people went bust investing in it.

Peter Robinson: P.J., don't you detect a difference in attitude on the part of the chattering classes, the '80's got called the greed decade, fortunes just as big were major in the '90s.

P.J. O'Rourke: I think we were coming off--we were coming off really almost fifty years of bien pessant socialism of leveling. I mean, starting with the great depression and going all the way through the 1970's, it was a matter of faith among the intellectual class in the whole Western world that economic leveling was good, that redistribution was good, that wealth was--that there was an element of evil and exploitation in wealth, that capitalism was naughty somehow. And by 1990 or so on, I think really it came when we recovered so quickly from the '87 crash, people began to realize that it was the Austrians and Von Mises and Hayek who were right and not Keynes, probably definitely not Marx.

Peter Robinson: Let me put this to you--let me quote you to yourself from, Sleepwalking Through History, all right. You begin with an account of the Reagan first inauguration in 1980. This is a very brief excerpt with a wonderful passage, "it was an outpouring of wealth and privilege at national airport, corporate jets were parked wing to wing on the tarmac. The airport was unable to accommodate the private planes seeking space." You get a feeling of real surfeit and something distasteful about it all reading your opening passage. But word for word, Haynes, you could have written the same passage about Bill Clinton's 1992 inaugural. So what's going--I mean, you yourself I think had a different attitude by the time the '90s came along.

Haynes Johnson: Yeah, actually I don't think you can separate the two decades. I think one leads into the other. I don't agree with P.J. about the idea that somehow there was a stagnant process of the last--the '60s and the '70s and so forth. They saw the greatest expansion of liberties in our country's history.

Peter Robinson: The '50s and '60s.

Haynes Johnson: And '70s both, all the way through. It also saw more cynicism and disconnect within the society. And I think the tragedy of both the '80s and the '90s when we had good times essentially, not for everybody, was that we sort of thought we could do it alone. We didn't need the entire community to work together. It's not a matter of socialism P.J. at all. We're not a socialist country. This is a very conservative country. If you think we're socialist like the European societies, we're not at all. And so I mean, I--and I think that there--also the standard of living rose again and again and again in that period of time…

Peter Robinson: Right.

Haynes Johnson: …in the United States. More people lived better and more freely and so forth in those decades. But what I think the great, terrible problem that we face now, right now, I'm jumping ahead in your conversation here…

Peter Robinson: Fire away. Go ahead.

Haynes Johnson: …is that with all the advantages we had in the '80s and the '90s, we turned away from public service and government as wrong and evil and ignoble. And the fact is that we didn't need it. The people in the '90s were even more ridden that way. The government was irrelevant. It didn't matter if there was no White House, it was corrupt anyhow and so forth and so on. And they didn't serve, they didn't vote and they were doing very fine, thank you. And now we have--we are learning that we indeed do need a role--I'm not talking about big government or liberal government or socialist government, I'm talking about a role properly for the society to provide functions that we need to defend ourselves and to create liberty and so forth.

Peter Robinson: So Ronald Reagan…

Peter Robinson: Let's turn now to Bill Clinton and the way in which he continued the economic policies of Ronald Reagan.

Title: Follow the Leader

Peter Robinson: Picking up on this notion that the '80s simply bleed into the '90s, Ronald Reagan…

Haynes Johnson: I do believe that, yes.

Peter Robinson: …cuts taxes and engages in a military build-up that causes deficit spending that reduces enormously the room for maneuver for the federal government to establish new programs.

Haynes Johnson: That's right.

Peter Robinson: Bill Clinton comes in and engages in a modest tax hike but aside from that, leaves the Reagan economic program intact. Effectively you get a Democrat, Bill Clinton, ratifying the fundamental changes of the Reagan years just as when Eisenhower didn't change the New Deal, that was a kind of ratification, right?

Haynes Johnson: He did.

Peter Robinson: And so--he did that. And so you now have by the end of the Clinton years, the great struggle, the great struggle for liberals in the Congress was to preserve social security, not to engage in major new initiatives but to preserve a program that was sixty years old, there's a fundamental change there right?

Haynes Johnson: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And the lessons are being learned effectively.

Haynes Johnson: Yeah, well actually nobody is against social security. There's not a single Republican member of the Congress who wants to cut back social security or end it or eliminate it as they did forty years ago when it was said to be socialism. Nobody wants to end the Medicare program or Medi…

P.J. O'Rourke: It's clearly about how to fund it.

Peter Robinson: How to fund it…

[Talking at same time]

Haynes Johnson: What I'm saying is it was seen as a (?) of socialism on the run. And I think that, you know sure and Clinton is--the irony about Bill Clinton is that he's seen as this radical figure, this liberal. I don't think he was at all.

P.J. O'Rourke: Gee, I never felt that. I've never felt that. I think what he was seen as was essentially despicable.

Haynes Johnson: Well, all right.

P.J. O'Rourke: But I don't mean despicable because of his beliefs, I think the feeling on the right was that he didn't have any. That was what they objected to. It wasn't that they disagreed with Clinton, it was that they had an instinctive gut level, dislike of the man.

Haynes Johnson: I think you're right in almost everything you say except for one thing. I think the hatred of Clinton and the desp--he was despicable to them, people all on the right also thought he was illegitimate, that he shouldn't have been a president. And they were determined and they saw him as a threat somehow of what you're talking about, the culture of the '60s, the guy that protests against the war. He went overseas, he didn't inhale.

P.J. O'Rourke: You mean in the larger sense?

[Talking at same time]

Haynes Johnson: Yeah, yeah. I mean, the culture…

P.J. O'Rourke: Not that he didn't beat George Bush fair and square.

Haynes Johnson: No, no, no, no. No, no, I'm not saying that. I think--so it was a complicated sort of process.

Peter Robinson: Speaking as a right-winger myself, let me try a little twist on your point there which is that during--1980's come along and Ronald Reagan who's not a moderate but an actual conservative shows that conservatives can move from the fringe of American politics to capture the very center. And conservatives like me thought they understood American politics and the American people. And then along comes Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal and suddenly the ground has shifted under our feet. Every time there's a new allegation, Clinton's ratings go up and the Republicans in the House try to hold him to account and their ratings go down. And it was as though the world had turned upside down. That was the exasperation.

P.J. O'Rourke: We didn't understand American politics after all.

Peter Robinson: What did we learn?

P.J. O'Rourke: I haven't got--I still don't know. I still don't know, you know, except that Americans…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: You tell us what we should have learned.

P.J. O'Rourke: Way too much Oprah. You know, that the--that obviously the idea had penetrated deep, deep into the American culture, that I'm not really accountable for my behavior and nobody else is really accountable for their behavior if we could just have a big group hug and understand each other and not be judgmental.

Haynes Johnson: What the Republican conservatives, maybe both of you guys, I don't know didn't get is that what Clinton--the reason he was elected and reelected--first Democratic President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 to…

Peter Robinson: To serve two terms.

Haynes Johnson: To be reelected by two terms in the White House. And he won because with all of his failings and he has multiple failings--we--no need to even talk about it. They're on--they're the character.

Peter Robinson: It's been done.

Haynes Johnson: Yeah, I mean, it's a part of our history and part of our time. We all saw it. I mean, saw it more than we wanted to see it and so forth, so on. But that he won because women, minorities and across the board, saw in him something that wasn't this ideological construct that he was not a good person, a despicable person, that he maybe understood what the needs were in these groups. And the Republicans didn't get that. They really didn't get that. And I don't think they still get it today.

Peter Robinson: Hold on…

Peter Robinson: Well I still don't get it. What exactly is Haynes' point here?

Title: The Values They Are a Changin'

Peter Robinson: You're saying that women and minorities somehow identified with him or is this P.J.'s point that there was just a kind of Oprah sense of empathy. I feel your pain.

Haynes Johnson: No, no, yeah, no. He--certainly Clinton--with the quivering lip and so forth, played into that very big. But I think it was much more than that. There was a sense that they understood that he was far more--you've heard about welfare, social security, medical care, healthcare, liberal leaves, I mean, the whole change in our society, I think the Republican Party to this day doesn't get it yet, how society has changed in America.

Peter Robinson: So they felt…

Haynes Johnson: The fundamental values of the country, not over here in this little, white sort of enclave, the white man who voted for the Republican candidates…

Peter Robinson: The Bob Dole...

Haynes Johnson: And then the country club set. That's not the majority of the country.

Peter Robinson: Right, right.

Haynes Johnson: And if you're looking at--and the Republicans now understand that I think but they don't still get it.

P.J. O'Rourke: I'm not sure there's any fundamental change there really. I mean, I think there has been a fundamental change in society over the past hundred years where people have definitely become more--less judgmental and more irresponsible and less God-fearing and more stupid…

Peter Robinson: The public morality has certainly more changed, that we can agree on. That's obvious, right?

P.J. O'Rourke: The public morality is certainly is a--but the public voters in a democracy are forever vibrating back and forth between the polls of wanting to be left alone by the government and wanting to get a bunch of stuff for free from the government. And we're simply--in the '90s we were over vibrating towards an attraction to the get a bunch of stuff for free from government. And Clinton was brilliant about this because he would deliver lots and lots and lots of little, wonderful sounding programs, none of them adequately funded, most of them coming to nothing but all sounding good and empathetic and terrific. And he was able to deliver on the American public's desire to get a bunch of free stuff from government without actually spending so much federal government money as to wreck the economic engine that made everybody--that gave everybody an underlying happiness.

Haynes Johnson: I'm not talking about--P.J., I'm not talking about government programs or spending or the New Deal revisited for whatever its…

Peter Robinson: He understood them somehow.

[Talking at same time]

Haynes Johnson: I'm talking about Clinton, when he talk--when you talk about when--we were talking about the people who fought the wars over abortion rights and women's rights…

Peter Robinson: Right, right.

Haynes Johnson: …and the corporate world in which women are entering, I think the great story of our time, there have been two great stories domestically in America. One was the end of segregation in the '60s that ended the slavery period. It literally did. It transformed society. And out of that came the women's rights movements and other movements that spread in this period and the--and this was a threat to the conservatives in this country and they fought it to this day.

Peter Robinson: But here's what I still don't…

P.J. O'Rourke: I don't--I can't agree with that. I think it's only a threat to the conservatives in that all these rights people have utter, complete intellectual and I would say moral confusion about what constitutes a private--a positive right and what constitutes a negative right. They're--you're never going to offend a decent conservative by your espousal of negative rights. They…

Peter Robinson: Which are, give us an explanation here?

P.J. O'Rourke: The negative rights are the rights to freedom of speech, the right to--I mean, all the rights that Martin Luther King fought for were negative rights. The--negative rights are essentially those rights that are not zero sum, the right to freedom. Your right to freedom of speech doesn't impinge upon anybody else's right to freedom of speech unless you yell louder. Positive rights, the bad rights are the give me rights, are the ri--I have a right to a certain level of income, I have a right to housing, I have a right to medical care, I have a right to education. Those things deeply offend conservatives and the fact that many of these rights group went quickly from struggling for negative rights to the "gimme", you know, just give me a bunch of stuff point of few as now, for instance, does nothing but demand…

Haynes Johnson: Do you think that women who talk about the right to control their own body don't have the right to suggest they do have that right?

P.J. O'Rourke: No, that is an entirely different question. I happen to personally be very opposed to abortion but I consider it a moral and not a political issue. And I would say that a person's right to kill their unborn child does not impinge upon the right of other people to…

Peter Robinson: So it fits the definition of a negative right.

P.J. O'Rourke: It does fit a definition of a negative right. So no, no. That's not it. I'm talking about the now demand for social--free daycare, have a right to daycare. You do not have a right to daycare. You don't even have a right to education. You don't have a right to a certain income. You don't have a right to housing. You don't have a right to any of this stuff because you'd have to take it from someone else.

Haynes Johnson: What I find fascinating about what you're saying and I don't disagree with everything you're saying, but when you cast it in this black and white term and I'm not talking racially, it's negatives and positives, it's all the negatives are over here and all the positives are over here, I don't think that's the way human beings are. I don't think that's…

[Talking at same time]

Haynes Johnson: Well I think there are--I think they are unlike the conservatives who believe there's a true belief and this is the judgment and this is the true belief. And I don't believe that's the way human beings--most of them are like me in the mushy middle.

Peter Robinson: Let's turn from assessing Clinton to assessing the decade of the '90s.

Title: Irrational Exuberance

Peter Robinson: Soon after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, Andrew Sullivan, journalist, posted on his website as a summation of the 1990's, the famous poem by W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939…

P.J. O'Rourke: A poem Auden disavowed incidentally.

Peter Robinson: Did he really?

P.J. O'Rourke: Yes, he did.

Peter Robinson: Let me quote it and then you tell us the story of why he dis--"I sit in one of the dives on 52nd Street, I'm certain and afraid as the clever hope expire of a low, dishonest decade." Why did he disavow that?

P.J. O'Rourke: He disavowed it because…

Peter Robinson: That's good stuff.

P.J. O'Rourke: …of the immensely stinky line that's down in there about all we need is love. You know, the sort of Beatles' like line. Say, the only thing we can do is love each other or die.

Peter Robinson: But that first stanza, nothing wrong with that.

P.J. O'Rourke: The first stanza is powerful definitely but then there--he talks about when he looks at skyscrapers, the announcement of collective man.

Peter Robinson: All right, but here's the point. P.J. O'Rourke, Andrew Sullivan, lots of people thought of this poem, that phrase, "a low dishonest decade," George Will in one his first columns, not poems, columns after September 11th

P.J. O'Rourke: Don't wish upon us George Will as a poet.

Peter Robinson: Ah, no, no. But he was essentially shrugging off this notion that we've escaped--that history is in--it's over, we're back in history, there's a kind of feeling that somehow the '90s, thank goodness, the horrible even of September 11th but at least the '90's are over, that nonsense has ended. And yet you title your book, The Best of Times. Of course, you imply the following phrase, the worst of times, but the title of your book is The Best of Times. Why do people like P.J. think of that line, "a low dishonest decade."

Haynes Johnson: Well let me say, Peter, the title of the book is clearly from the Dickensian quote and I use it on the title page. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. And that's what the '90's were. There were good things and bad things but they were--allowed ourselves you say frivolous, yes indeed, to be diverted from serious attention of the issues around us. And in that sense, it was a low decade.

Peter Robinson: You grant that? There was a frivolity?

Haynes Johnson: Of course there was.

Peter Robinson: We're right at this point to feel revulsion at certain aspects…

Haynes Johnson: Absolutely because of lost opportunities we had, with all the advantage of--we had them in the '90s and the '80s both, even more in the '90s than we did in the '80s.

P.J. O'Rourke: I had a funny experience…

Haynes Johnson: I mean, the opportunity to make changes.

P.J. O'Rourke: I was watching CNN headline news and they were showing some clip of something and there was President Clinton down in the lower left hand corner and I looked at the screen and I thought, I know that guy. Boy, you know, it was--it all seems so really, really long ago.

Peter Robinson: Forgotten but not gone…

Haynes Johnson: Yeah that's a page of our history that is now closed. I mean, it is the only America…

Peter Robinson: Yes, that's it. It feels over.

Haynes Johnson: …and when we're talking about the two decades, I do think they merged together and you can--we can talk about their excesses and their strengths and weaknesses and so forth and you hope you learn from them.

Peter Robinson: So let me close it out by asking for a couple of summary statements here. Clare Luce used to say that history had time to give each great figure only a single sentence, Lincoln freed the slaves, Churchill saved Britain. What sentence will history give Ronald Reagan? Haynes?

Haynes Johnson: He was a great figure on the American stage who rang the bell of the people's consciousness. And I would add more to that--I'd add sort of a semi-colon and say that he was more than he seemed to his detractors and far less than he seemed to his admirers.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I would like to arm wrestle with you over that but it's beautifully put. And what about Clinton? What's his sentence?

Haynes Johnson: Clinton will be somewhere down in the range of history a President who never fulfilled his promise, who depreciated the office of the job and squandered the chances he had to make a difference.

Peter Robinson: P.J.? Reagan and Clinton. Give us Reagan.

P.J. O'Rourke: He gave us hope. Clinton, he was a waste of time.

Peter Robinson: Okay. The '20s are the Roaring Twenties. Some people call the '80s the Greed Decade. I want you both to give us the epithet by which history will remember the '80s and the '90s. Haynes, the '80s.

Haynes Johnson: The '80s were the sort of--they were an age of myths but they were an age of progress too. I'll grant you that. But the '90s were the bubble years.

Peter Robinson: The bubble years.

Haynes Johnson: I mean…

P.J. O'Rourke: I think that's probably likely to stick with them. My wife had a great--I was going through asking the same question. I was saying every decade's got a name, what are the '90s going to be called? And my wife who's very good at this sort of thing said the Me and Oh Yeah, You Too decade.

Peter Robinson: P.J. O'Rourke, Haynes Johnson, thank you very much.

Haynes Johnson: It was very nice being with you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Thanks for joining us.