Looking Backwards At a Frivolous Time

A producer called me a while back asking if I wanted to be interviewed for The Hunting of the President , the new film on Bill Clinton based on the best-selling book by Gene Lyons and The Observer ‘s Joe Conason. I believe Mr. Conason respects my earnestness-while disagreeing with all of my opinions (even as I respect his, with the same reservations)-sufficiently not to have made me appear any worse than I actually am. Yet I decided not to be interviewed. The topic seemed so long ago.

As the Ghost of Christmas Past explained to Ebenezer Scrooge, “These are but shadows of the things that have been …. They have no consciousness of us.”

What is it about the 1990’s, that decade less than half a decade ago, that has vanished so utterly?

One casualty has been third ways-the tropism, half splitting the difference, half finding a new path, for avoiding the trite. Ross Perot emotionally dominated the electoral cycle of 1992, until he turned out to be a nut. John McCain emotionally dominated the cycle of 2000. Bill Clinton won two elections by triangulation, presenting himself as the hovering mean between the left wing of his party, and the right wing that was the entire Republican Party. Governor George W. Bush, seeking the nomination and the Presidency, flipped the Clinton strategy by offering himself as a”compassionate conservative”-too hard-nosed to be a softie, too soft to be a hard-ass. All these strategies still interest the historian, but they are like the bimetallism or free-soil slogans of a vanished era.

Another lost child of the 90’s is a certain kind of hyper-trophied scandal. Mr. Clinton was involved in the mother of all such, but let us not distract from his book tour by offering our own riffs on it. But before Monica, there was O.J. Objectively, the O.J. case was a crime of passion whoseprosecution was queered by celebrity. Crimes of passion occur every week,unnoticed, except fleetingly by the Daily News and the Post . The celebrity angle should have boosted the story to the E! Channel and the supermarket tabloids, to join the Natalie Wood bio and sex with Bigfoot. The idea that a nation was consumed by this lurid tale now seems nuts.

The third casualty of the 90’s is inevitability. When the decade began, Francis Fukuyama, guided by Hegel, had just told us that history was ending. Events would continue to occur, but the shape of human progress had been set. The fall of organized Marxism meant that the future of mankind was us; colonial papers please copy. A few years later, Newt Gingrich, who took his Hegel via Alvin and Heidi Toffler, declared that the world was rising, beyond agriculture and industrialism, to a third age of information. He, and the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, would be the pathfinders. Where are they now? Inevitability, it turns out, doesn’t haveto happen.

It is not obvious what linked these mindsets. The prospect of third waysleading to irresistible paradises induced calm; maybe the frantic scandals were the only diversion we could allow ourselves. The problem is not worth figuring out, since 9/11 gave us problems indeed.

Old mental habits still linger, like the sensation of twitching in limbs that have been amputated. The 9/11 commission is a collection of twitches.

The scandal comes from the news that if the F.A.A. had told the Pentagon of the

first hijacking 15 minutes earlier, we could have scrambled jets that would have shot down the other hijacked airliners. Say what? The point of surprise attacks is that they are surprising. If anyone thinks that such an order-to shoot down planes full of innocent Americans-issued in a time of what, up to a few minutes earlier, had been peace, would be executed without glitches, they are dreaming.

The bland 1990’s air of inevitability wafts from the commission’s discussion of Saddam Hussein’s links with Al Qaeda. Not to worry, the commission reports, there were none. Or so the A.P. wire, and T he New York Times , played it. What the commission actually said, in its artfully put statement, was that there had been no collaborative links leading to attacks on American soil. Some journalists dispute that, by the way, noting that the Czechs never backed off their report that 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta had met an Iraqi diplomat in Prague, though the C.I.A. doesn’t believe it. But, leaving that question aside, one asks another: What non-collaborative links did Iraq and Al Qaeda have? If they hadn’t thrown any little parties for us yet, what functions might they have planning? The very people who blame us for not shooting down jets with no warning, deplore us for shooting down despots after we have been given a warning of 3,000 dead.

Now that we don’t have Bill and Monica to kick around any more, what should we make of the murder of Paul Johnson? What I make of it is the shiftiness of the Saudis. Surely the slaughter of Al Qaeda operatives-Al Qaeda “bigs,” as the Post put it-after Johnson’s beheading was a bit pat.

These monsters kidnap an American, degrade and kill him-and then they are magically rounded up and wiped out? I am sure there are men in the Saudi government (there are no women) honestly fighting Al Qaeda. I’m equally sure there are other men who are supporting it, or playing both sides of the wadi .

We can stop cowardly murders by telling American civilians to let the non-working wealthy of the kingdom pump their own oil. Our larger problem is to stop the Saudis from spending their oil money on Nazi-like pseudo-Islamic propaganda at home and abroad. Accomplishing that will take a combination of cunning, force and will.

Some Democrats, like Senator Charles Schumer, have called on the White House to get tougher on Saudi Arabia. How would he do that? How would his party do that?

This is a question so urgent, and so complex, that it cannot be an issue in a Presidential campaign. But it should be an issue for the next four years. The Bush team, if it stays, or the Kerry team, if it arrives, ought to deal with it, since we will have to deal with it, whether they do or not.

Looking Backwards At a Frivolous Time