This is the second of four articles in a series entitled, Reflections on the Last 40 Years in America.
The Nineties were an exciting decade. It was a time of tremendous technological change. The internet, cell phones, and digital music changed society in unfathomable ways. It was also a time of political and cultural change. The Nineties were definitely not boring. Sadly, though, the decade also included several tragedies. So let’s look back on that time for a few moments.
POLITICS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, AND TERRORIST ATTACKS
As the Cold War drew to a close on Christmas Day of 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union (what a nice Christmas present!), the geopolitical situation changed fundamentally. Instead of a bipolar world, the United States became the world’s only superpower. On that night, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and replaced by the Russian tricolor. Gorbachev resigned and was replaced by Yeltsin. Atheistic communism was shown to be the complete failure it had been all along.
As Ronald Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush oversaw the transitional period of the end of the Cold War. He chose to take a soft approach toward the old Soviet Union and decided against taking victory laps.
Bush was deft in foreign policy as shown in his handling of the First Gulf War (a.k.a. the Persian Gulf War). Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The U.S. led the largest allied coalition formed since WWII, quickly defeated Saddam’s forces, and liberated Kuwait. The war had lasting consequences, however. Bush’s son would have to deal with Saddam again twelve years later. In addition, Osama bin Laden, angered by U.S. troops stationed in Saudia Arabia, would mastermind the 9/11 attacks.
Bush ran into trouble on the domestic front, especially the economy. The President broke his famous pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: No new taxes.” The combination of Bush’s decision to raise taxes and the economic recession of the early 1990’s helped pave the way for Bill Clinton to defeat Bush in 1992 and win the White House. Clinton was popular with baby boomers and younger voters, but as a candidate and as a President, he and his wife Hillary would be plagued by multiple scandals.
The near downfall of Clinton’s presidency occurred when Matt Drudge broke a major story on his website, the Drudge Report, about Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. The nation was dragged through the gutter as it learned the sordid details of the Starr Report. Clinton went on to survive impeachment by House Republicans when the Senate failed to convict, but his administration was badly damaged.
In foreign affairs under Clinton, the U.S. intervened militarily in places like Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Some were skeptical about America’s involvement in these places. Others felt that the U.S. should have done more to prevent the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands Tutsi, Twa, and Hutu people were murdered.
Also on the international scene, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and became the first black South African President, helping to end apartheid and foster reconciliation; the Oslo Accords were signed; and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fellow Israeli who opposed the terms of the Oslo Accords.
There were several terrorist attacks in the decade. The first World Trade Center attack took place on February 26, 1993. A truck bomb was detonated below the North Tower. Islamic terrorists were responsible. Ramzi Yousef was the mastermind behind the attack, while his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, financed it. The intention was to topple the North Tower into the South Tower and cause both to collapse. Thankfully, that did not happen, but sadly the attack killed six people and injured over a thousand more. It would be a preview of a much more horrendous attack to come eight and a half years later.
Other terrorist attacks included the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah and Iran were found to be responsible. In 1998, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda were behind these attacks. As a result of the bombings, the FBI put Osama bin Laden on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.
The Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995 was one of those events in which everyone remembers where he was when it happened. I was a senior in high school, and our Physics class was outside launching rockets we had made. We heard a blast and then saw smoke in the distance. We went inside and turned on the radio to learn more about what had happened.
Timothy McVeigh, with the aid of Terry Nichols, had set off a bomb in a Ryder truck in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. McVeigh was upset with the federal government over its handling of Ruby Ridge and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. The Murrah bombing was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11. It remains the deadliest domestic terror attack in the country’s history. There were 168 people killed, and hundreds more were injured. Volunteers rushed to the scene to help, and the tragedy united Oklahomans and bolstered their resolve. Later, President Clinton and Billy Graham came to OKC to attend the memorial service.
On a positive note for the city, the hugely successful MAPS project revitalized Bricktown and downtown OKC.
Sneakers, a 1992 comedy-thriller film, foresaw the implications of the technological change that the decade would bring. There’s a great quote in the film by the character Cosmo which sums up the seismic shift in technology and society which took place in the nineties:
There’s a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets. It’s about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think… it’s all about the information!
The material excesses of the eighties gave way to the technological sophistication of the Information Age. Of course the biggest tech development of the decade was the World Wide Web. Suddenly all kinds of information was available at our fingertips. The internet shrank the world by connecting people from distant places. Email and chat rooms became popular new forms of communication. The internet quickly changed the way we did business, commerce, education, music, and even dating. The web was not all good, of course. The negatives included such things as pornography, social isolation, and technological addiction to name just a few. Also, the Dot-com bubble in the stock market caused by massive speculation would lead to the Dot-com crash by the year 2000.
Cell Phones started to become widespread near the end of the decade. I still remember my first one–a Qualcom QCP 2700. My friend worked at the Sprint store and got me a good deal on one. I sent my first text in 1999.
Advancements were made in genetics as well, and major ethical questions were raised when Dolly the Sheep was cloned. It was the first time an adult mammal was cloned from an adult somatic cell.
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit in 1990 and provided detailed images of deep space.
The media landscape also changed substantially. Twenty-four hour news came into being with the advent of CNN, Headline News, and the internet. Alternative media such as Fox News and the Drudge Report also arose and challenged the liberal establishment.
One of the crazier events (or maybe I should say nonevents) of technology in the decade was the panic over the Y2K crisis. Endless news stories were generated about how computer bugs involving the inability to properly read the year 2000 would lead to mass chaos in society. Not much happened, though, and in hindsight the hysteria seemed misplaced.
In the sports world, John Elway and the Denver Broncos finally won not just one but two Super Bowls. In baseball, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire battled in a home run race. The Braves made frequent trips to the World Series, but not in 1994, when a strike cut the season short. In 1996, Derek Jeter and the Yankees won the World Series, one of three championships for the Bronx Bombers in the decade. Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA. And in April 1997, Tiger Woods won his first major, The Masters, and became the youngest player, at 21, to win the tournament.
Popular movies of the decade included Jurassic Park and the beginning of a new (or should I say old) Star Wars trilogy. Titanic was the highest-grossing movie. It included a hit single by Celine Dion, My Heart Will Go On, which filled the radio waves. The Matrix trilogy, Independence Day, and The Lion King were other blockbusters. Classics like Braveheart, The Shawshank Redemption, The Prince of Egypt, Forrest Gump, Schindler’s List, and Pretty Woman also appeared on the big screen. Harrison Ford starred in a cinematic remake of the old television show, The Fugitive. Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones appeared in the entertaining swashbuckler, The Mask of Zorro. First Knight satisfied audiences who loved medieval themes and Authurian legend. Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York became overnight Christmas classics, while the computer animation of Toy Story completely changed the landscape of children’s movies for the foreseeable future.
Seinfeld, Wings, Friends, Walker Texas Ranger, Coach, Full House, Frasier, Home Improvement, and the Saturday morning favorite Saved by the Bell were just a few of the popular television shows of the decade. I loved Wings. I remember watching it after Seinfeld on Thursday nights in college, and I still watch reruns of it to this day. Seinfeld and Friends were not just T.V. shows. They were cultural phenomena. “Double dip”, “close talker”, and “soup nazi” entered our vocabulary thanks to Seinfeld. Friends made the coffe shop popular as a hangout; and Ross and Rachel became America’s favorite couple. One of the more underrated shows of the decade was Becker. Ted Danson starred as a cranky doctor in the Bronx who lacked bedside manner and liked to hang out in a local diner.
Seattle’s Grunge music exploded on the scene in the first half of the decade. Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam were three of the most popular grunge bands. When Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide, it shocked fans. I still remember walking out of school that day when I heard the news.
Other alternative rock bands like The Cranberries and The Cure also dominated the era. I had my own alternative rock band, Introspective. We played a few shows, but mostly we got together to jam and hang out.
Brittany Spears and boy bands like NSYNC dominated the latter part of the decade. On the rap scene, Coolio and Dr. Dre were mainstays on MTV.
Napster changed the way young people got their music. It allowed for the sharing of MP3 files, but it soon ran into copyright infringement issues. The cat was out of the bag though, and the way people acquired their music would never be the same. The days of going to the record store to buy a CD were going the way of the card catalog.
On the book front, The Firm, a legal thriller, catapulted John Grisham to stardom. Also, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park was the basis for the hit movie mentioned above.
Multiculturalism was a major factor in the nineties. Race issues were front and center when a video of the L.A. Police beating Rodney King was released to the media. Then the trial of the decade, maybe the century, occurred after O.J. Simpson was arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. But the drama began before the trial even started. Millions watched on television as authorities chased O.J. Simpson and his friend A.C. Cowlings down the L.A. Freeway in a white Ford Bronco. Simpson was found not guilty, but many were convinced that he was guilty.
When Princess Diana was tragically killed in Paris in an automobile accident as she and her boyfriend fled the Paparazzi who were chasing them, a worldwide outpouring of grief and sympathy occurred. Mourners left flowers, candles, and messages outside of Kensington Palace in her honor.
On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado shocked the nation. Two teens, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered twelve students and a teacher in their school before committing suicide in the library.
The nineties were a mixture of triumph and tragedy. Two major events can serve as bookends for the decade. The fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War ushered in the nineties while the impeachment of President Clinton and political dysfunction ushered it out. The United States that would enter the new millennium would be a far different country than the one at the beginning of the decade. Technological, social, political, and geopolitical changes had transformed not only the country but the world. And unbeknownst to the United States, trouble lay on the horizon.