Books

Dividers, Not Uniters

President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton at a White House event in 2000. (William Philpott/Reuters)
In a new book, Steve Kornacki looks back at the 1990s — and finds the roots of today’s polarization in the Clintons’ ascent.

Picture this: A norm-shattering, media-manipulating Boomer outsider dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct gets elected president with less than half the popular vote — after a quixotic gadfly disrupts the aging, humdrum, establishment-friendly standard-bearer of the other party. That president then promptly begins to treat the White House itself as a reality-TV show, infuriating Washington insiders and running an administration so dodgy that a special prosecutor is appointed. His opponents are reduced to praying that said prosecutor will uncover the magic bullet to finally remove him, and set politics back to the way things were before.

Sound familiar?

While there have been plenty of histories of the Vietnam/Watergate era, almost as many books that look at the disco-rific aftermath (from David Frum’s How We Got Here to Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge), and conservative books by the dozen on Reagan and Thatcher, the 1990s was until recently an invisible decade. “The holiday from history,” it was called, a “lull” where nothing much really happened, a candy-colored coma between the Berlin Wall’s fall on 11/9 and the 9/11 attacks less than a dozen years later.

Eric Alterman, Thomas Frank, Gil Troy, and David Friend (the latter two in their recent books The Age of Clinton and The Naughty Nineties) have recently set out to re-evaluate these years — as have I in my own recent book, Culture War. Now, MSNBC star Steve Kornacki seeks to take on the decade that defined our generation (Kornacki and I are roughly the same age) and set the stage for everything that’s happened since. The result, The Red and the Blue, is a political procedural that sets out to explain how we went from giga-landslides in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s to Electoral College squeakers today, how Republicans disappeared from the coasts and Democrats died their final deaths in the South and Midwest.

Kornacki’s book does have one big difference from all the other recent tomes on the subject: It’s the first one to be completed and published well into Donald Trump’s term as president. As such, it benefits from the context provided by Trump’s ascent, which has clarified that one big reason we’re seemingly reliving the 1930s today is because both the Left and Right spent the 1990s and early 2000s rehashing the culture wars of the 1960s and early ’70s.

Because cable and the Internet have so completely transformed American culture over the past two or three decades, it’s easy to forget (and younger people can’t even remember) just how norm-shattering Bill Clinton was, compared to the Greatest and Silent Generation leaders who came before him. To social conservatives and foreign-policy hawks, Clinton’s election was downright triggering, and deserved nothing less than full-on #Resistance. Historian Steven Gillon famously interviewed one who succinctly fumed that Clinton was “a womanizing, Elvis-loving, non-inhaling, truth-shading, draft-dodging, war-protesting, abortion-protecting, gay-promoting, gun-hating Baby Boomer!” And aside from Gary Hart, whose ill-fated career was recently reexamined in the Jason Reitman movie The Front Runner, America hadn’t had a youthful, truly sexualized major-party presidential nominee since JFK — until Clinton came along.

Kornacki’s book provides a desperately needed Cold Case– or Mad Men-style dose of reality to today’s red-rose socialists and younger Millennial leftists, who think that the problem with Bill and Hillary was that they were not liberal enough during their “two-for-one” presidency. In 1992, the electorate was over 85 percent white. Murder and rape were roughly double what they are today, with drive-by shootings a daily occurrence in Harlem, Chicago, Detroit, and South-Central L.A. (One can debate the merits of gun control, “mass incarceration,” or “broken-windows policing,” but the fact is that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, America was in a state of emergency with regards to crime.) The Federal Reserve’s preference for financialization and neoliberalism was at its very peak under the influence of Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan. Nearly half of Americans still thought “sodomy” — never mind same-sex marriage or civil unions — should be illegal. And while America was pro-choice, huge percentages of voters demanded restrictions to abortion-on-demand.

The Red and the Blue gives an excellent Gen-X-plaining of just how systemically, institutionally, and culturally impossible it would have been for Democrats to move even farther leftward than they did back then — of how much damage their “too far left” brand had done to the party in the ’80s and of the disastrous political consequences of Bill Clinton’s attempts to govern from the left in 1993–94, as epitomized by Hillary’s attempt at health-care reform. He reminds his readers with his trademark aptitude for facts and figures that America in the 1990s was still very much living in what Sean Wilentz called The Age of Reagan.

While The Red and the Blue tries to create a House of Cards or West Wing vibe, Kornacki’s story is really more like a tightly formatted CBS or Dick Wolf crime procedural. He relentlessly “centers” his book on his four gray-haired, privileged, straight, white leading men — Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot — with every sentence and chapter tightly screwed to his Beltway-centric narrative. It is not an indefensible approach, but possibly a “culturally appropriating” and dangerous one for a white, male, liberal journalist to take in these hypersensitive times. It runs the risk of marginalizing and exoticizing the fed-up African Americans, AIDS-era gays, working women, immigrants, and Southern white fundamentalists who scared the pants off the political establishment back then, making them agency-free supporting characters in what were really their stories.

Nevertheless, Kornacki’s relentless focus on the big players of the 1990s does have its advantages. He manages, for example, to nail the most salient point of the abusive relationship between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich: that it was at heart a love story, and/or a co-dependency worthy of Dr. Phil. One man could simply not have managed to stay in office without the other. It was Clinton hatred on the social right that gave us Gingrich, and it was Gingrich’s surefire ability to trigger the libs that protected Clinton year in and year out. “Do you want him – or me?” became the basic campaign pitch of both men.

(Indeed, every single election since 1992 has followed the same playbook. “You have a moral obligation to vote against my opponent, because he’s a fascist white-supremacist (Trump), a granny-starver (Ryan), hopelessly unqualified (Palin), misogynist homophobe” or “an anti-family, pro-abortion, anti-God Communist who hates the working class and wants to take your guns!” It’s never about positively voting for someone or the policies they represent.)

Kornacki is one of the most genuinly likable and well-meaning pundits on the scene today, famous for his almost savant-like statistical knowledge, and that comes through in The Red and the Blue. But his Officer Friendly approach to the media is just too naïve by half, especially for someone who is a cable-news host with considerable experience in online journalism. In Kornacki’s telling, reporters merely report, offering just the facts or serving as quickie Greek choruses and footnote sources. This might work for a tenth-grade term paper, but for a book that seeks to illuminate the decade that saw the rise of the Internet, the birth of Fox News, unprecedented media consolidation, and what Eric Alterman called “the punditocracy” at the height of its influence, it’s entirely inadequate.

The yuppie journalists of the late ’80s and ’90s proudly marched in the parade instead of just covering it, so much so that David Brooks famously said in 2007 that most major news organizations had become de facto “neoliberal institutions.” From highly influential anti-Great Society “Atari Democrats” like Michael Kinsley, Joe Klein, Sidney Blumenthal, and Robert Samuelson and proudly un-PC pundits like Camille Paglia, Ben Wattenberg, Bill Maher, and Andrew Sullivan to donor-funded think tanks like Heritage and Cato, an entire intellectual infrastructure was shaping the national narrative for what became Third Way Clintonism well before the Clinton era began. Yet most of these people and institutions do not even appear in Kornacki’s index, or if they do, they’re curtly dispensed with in one or two lines.

It’s possible that with Donald Trump’s attacks on the press (and with some people using criticism of “the media” as an anti-Semitic dog whistle), Kornacki didn’t want to even go there. But a book on 1990s polarization that omits Steve Jobs, Roger Ailes, and Bill Gates from its index? One that effectively ignores the O.J. trial, Maureen Dowd’s gendered, campy, sexist (certainly by today’s standards), Pulitzer-winning coverage of Monicagate, and Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill? One that fails to reckon with the fact that writers as far apart as Ann Coulter and Eric Alterman blamed Al Gore’s loss in 2000 on the media’s hatred of him (and his hatred of them)? Seems like an incomplete treatment of the subject, doesn’t it?

It was the mega-mogul Sumner Redstone who famously said that, “Content is King.” And that means that the people who tone-police, gatekeep, edit, contextualize, and amplify that content are often the kingmakers. Kornacki would be very wise to remember that, the next time he lifts his talented pen to covering a modern political or cultural era.

That said, one area where Kornacki does give the media its due is when he briskly looks at Rush Limbaugh — in particular Limbaugh’s pioneering tactic (soon perfected by Gingrich, Coulter, and Karl Rove) of branding anyone whose politics were even slightly to the left of, say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Dianne Feinstein, as a Loony Liberal, Radical Leftist, or Femi-Nazi. From Clinton and Dubya well into the Obama years, red-meat conservatives intentionally fuzzed the line between corporate social-liberals and the true hard left of Michael Moore, Pacifica Radio, and Thomas Frank, and Kornacki captures their strategy perfectly.

What’s more, as unpleasant and tiresome as it must’ve been for Bill and Hillary to be forever treated like they were getting ready to kidnap Patty Hearst in between flag-burnings, Kornacki shows how such treatment was as much a godsend for DLC New Democrats as it was for true conservatives. Erasing the distinction between “liberal” and “leftist” forced the institutional Democratic party to accept (kicking and screaming) that Reaganomics was here to stay, and to work within the boundaries set by a yuppiefied, globalizing, donor-driven, brave new Wall Street–Silicon Valley–Hollywood world.

Even with Gore’s defeat and the subsequent Bush–Cheney era, it seemed for many years that it was Clinton, not Gingrich, who emerged from the ’90s triumphant. Aside from the Obamas themselves, no other politician would even remotely disrupt or challenge Clintonistas’ hold on the Democratic party for another ten or 15 years. But Clintonism could only continue as long as the true far-left remained repressed, and as long as the economy kept humming. When a fist-shaking socialist senator from Vermont lined up an army of Millennials in formation behind him eight years after the dawn of the Great Recession caused in no small part by Clinton-era financial policy, it became crystal clear that Newt Gingrich had won the war.

When they exited the White House, the Clintons left behind a Democratic party that working class, rural, and/or religious whites had become almost allergic to, one more dependent on African-American and Latino voters than ever. Donald Trump cruised to triumph in 2016 using all of the dog whistles and wedge issues that Gingrich, Rove, Buchanan, and Ross Perot had refined to perfection. And just as education-conscious, socially liberal white professionals reacted against Gingrich’s and Buchanan’s reactionary rhetoric in the late ’90s, Trump’s Republican party has now been effectively evicted from places as once-synonymous with the GOP as Long Island, Maine, New Jersey, San Diego, and Orange County.

Kornacki’s wistful and revealing final line says it all. Instead of returning home at the end of their second term (à la LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Sr.), Bill and Hillary left ruby-red Arkansas never to return, putting up their post-White House stakes in diverse, cosmopolitan, finance-and-media-centric New York. “Like their party,” he writes, “they could see where their future was.”

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