By Marjorie Williams
Sunday, December 29, 1991
We're still waiting for the '90s to start, that good, green, family-centered decade we've heard so much about. No doubt the vaunted post-'80s altruism will be along any day now. But in the meantime, all we have is this strange transitional twilight, this year-by-year struggle to determine our whereabouts, as we bid a divided goodbye to 1991.
Call it the Tale of Two Countries:
One of them was the good old U.S. of A., back in the saddle, bigger and better. It was Bush country, Lee Greenwood country. It was the kind of country that takes names and wins wars, and in 1991 it became the world's only superpower.
The other country was us at home, America, perceptibly limping as we crossed the threshold of the new year. This America was stuck in a different kind of war, the subtle, intractable, constant conflict that is all in the family.
We were like one of those scary teenagers who go forth into the world every day to captain the team and sing in the choir and bring home straight A's, and never let on about the blank confusion inside. Tension City, the president might say, if he were ever to acknowledge the sharp split in America's personality. But Dad was the first to delude himself, bragging to his buddies down at the NATO club about how well we did at our science projects: Johnny's Patriot missile won first prize, and Sally baked brownies for the big homecoming parade. What more did he need to know?
Iraq was not a living room war, in the Vietnam-era phrase; it was a Barcalounger war, taking less time to arc its course than the average network flop. The brief anxiety of it -- gas masks in Tel Aviv, and the stomach-hollowing moments of wondering how Israel would retaliate; the imagination's power to summon gruesome combinations of men and machinery and blood and sand -- all this was swept away with astounding efficiency.
We loosed the fateful lightning of our terrible, swift sword (so we felt): The weapons worked; the strategy was smart; we won, and at a blissful remove. It seemed a clean war as wars go. There was evidence to the contrary, of course: the long line of dead cars and dead men that smoldered single file on the road from Kuwait City to Basra; the Kurds driven into exile for the error of believing that we'd meant to force Saddam Hussein from power; the eventual pellets of information that were finally squeezed forth about the Iraqi dead -- the ones who, for example, had been buried alive in their trenches by plows affixed to the tanks of the 1st Infantry.
In the past, Americans have wondered a lot (as teenagers will) about consequences like these. But if we did so this time, it was largely in private, locked in our rooms. Publicly, all was celebration. The war, gloated Time magazine, had finally killed off the ghosts of Vietnam: "Self-doubt, deep divisions, suspicions of national decline -- the very words suddenly seem quaint."
Ten months later, well: The very words . . . For the civil wars sputtered on at home. The year's most flummoxing dramas seemed, when you thought about them at all, to be sequels -- old demons newly packaged, Nightmare on Main Street XIII. The special ef- fects might have grown more exotic, the means of destruction new, but surely these were still the same old ghouls that had stalked us in earlier installments:
The Los Angeles Police Department casually beat a black man to the brink of death. The only new part was that an onlooker caught Rodney King's attackers on video.
This unshockable city discovered, as we do every year, that we weren't quite inured to violence, not yet. This time, according to police, our reminder took the form of a 19-year-old rolling down his car window on a busy highway and blowing away Patricia Lexie with a handgun and a lethally simple wish to bust somebody.
Women told the world (since it finally asked) that sexual hostility was a debilitatingly common part of their working lives. A lot of men (again; still) expressed astonishment. The difference this time was that the debate was occasioned by a law professor and a Supreme Court nominee.
A weirdly personable young man demonstrated again that fascism was only an intolerant blink away for people angry or desperate enough. And this time, David Duke was almost elected governor of Louisiana. It may have been a measure of our losses that the results of that election came as such a relief: In a pinch, we told ourselves happily, we prefer chicanery -- in the person of once and future Gov. Edwin Edwards -- to the smiling Nazism of Duke.
Another measure of loss was Magic Johnson, and the furtive gratitude that AIDS activists had to feel at seeing their cause joined by one so famous and so popular -- one who might finally be able to frame the issue as something other than the sufferers' just deserts.
It was a year that found our dividing lines over and over: here in Mount Pleasant, where our melting pot overheated to reach a hostile boil; down in Palm Beach, where Kennedys floundered again in their fateful nocturnal mix of women and drink; out in Wichita, where this year's most visible battle in the civil war over abortion was waged. Gender, race, religion, rank: We probe these painful divisions constantly, without relief, a tongue returning insistently to a throbbing tooth. Away from home, out in the larger world, history glided startlingly by, like a dreadnought -- the real thing, out of its time! -- appearing suddenly in a crowded harbor.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in a handful of August days, ckkrrrWHOOOOOMPF, like the artificial thing it had always been.
The dreaded arrival of the anti-Gorbachev coup gave way to unimagined improvisation, a sea of people daring hope for the future, buoying up the lone form of Boris Yeltsin. In Red Square, homemakers talked reasonably about the discovery of things worth dying for. Lenin's immovable form, his bronze replica in all those city squares: The people simply moved it.
There remained, of course, plenty of cause for anxiety. Starvation still threatened; Russians might never rid themselves of the autocratic impulse, cautioned scholars (and not a few Russians); and who, precisely, controlled the battlement of missiles that ringed the imploding empire?
Still: When was the last time we watched a world power bend itself, almost without bloodshed, to the reinvention of politics?Here, impulses ran the opposite way. Nineteen ninety-one was the year we stewed in our politics, despised them, reviled them, flirted seriously with abolishing them. Members of Congress bleated apologies and nervously loosened their neckties as Washington state nearly passed a term limit referendum.
But those moments of fear were exceptions to the iron rule of 1991: business as usual. This was the year when the Senate raised its pay and the Congress bounced its checks; up on the Hill they were shocked -- shocked! -- that John Sununu was traveling on the taxpayer's dime. Columnists inside the Beltway started explaining to their readers, which is to say their sources, that ordinary Americans tended to resent their lifestyles, especially when the country was running a 12-figure deficit. This is hard to grasp, power types explained to each other with patient self-pity, but it doesn't play well out there.
Yet Washington passed the year in its usual satisfied partition of the spoils: Republicans in the White House, Democrats in Congress, people in the distance.
Most political debate over the future began and ended with the observation that whatever the solution, we could not afford it. Political debate over the past vanished in a welter of trivia. Oliver North won a technical acquittal; Robert Gates was confirmed; and Iran-contra finally lost all reality, as Congress pursued the sexier chimera of a 1980 "October Surprise."
When the going got rough, Republicans -- with some glee -- sacrificed Sununu to the implacable gods of opinion who rule within the Beltway.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic Party spent most of the year in a vegetative state. Its elderly medicine man, Clark Clifford, lost his magic to the year's most redolent scandal, BCCI. (A scandal that was, itself, the apotheosis of scandal: It was multinational; it had drugs, banking, political corruption and the CIA; almost no one understood it.) But the Democrats showed flickerings of life toward the end of the year, when Harris Wofford trounced Dick Thornburgh in Pennsylvania, Mario Cuomo allowed as how he might ponder thinking about considering actually running for higher office, and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton earned good reviews for talking what sounded a lot like substance.
Just in time for the pundits to begin their quadrennial flirtation with the rosy idea that in this great country, anyone can be president -- even a Democrat. And Bush: He was the most popular president in history, except when his polls plummeted. American confidence was restored, only it was also in the worst shape anyone could remember. He ran a tight ship, orchestrating policy with a sure hand through a small circle of advisers; that is, when his administration wasn't in disarray, riven by squabbles among a bitterly divided staff.
It depended, month by month and episode by episode, on whether he was dealing with foreign policy or domestic matters. It was as if all of us -- president, people, providence -- conspired to arrange reality as a matter of opposites, as if we could not deal with any story more ambiguous or complex.
Abroad: transformation. At home: stasis.
The president volunteered a radical reduction in America's nuclear arsenal, seeing in the Soviet Union's collapse a chance to overturn the inexorable logic of the arms race. On a separate front, he and his silken sidekick Jim Baker nudged the Middle East toward peace. And the hostages came home, the wry serenity of Terry Anderson offering Americans one of the winter's rare flutters of joy. Even when acts overseas were ineffective or unpopular, Bush was credited with leadership by a country that likes action in its presidents.
But the man who had campaigned on a promise to run the economy just like Reagan -- only more so, or less so; only better -- had gotten to the bottom of Reagan's famous parable about the little boy on Christmas who dug and dug through the manure with all the optimism of his sunny nature. Bush's shovel had finally struck the boards of the stable floor and broken on the bitter truth that there was no pony.
"It will not be a deep recession," said the president in January. It will "soon give way to a new cycle of growth," he said in April. And in November, more plaintively: "There ought to be, in my view, given the economic place where we stand now, more confidence."
But no tide rose to lift all boats; the deficit did not narrow; the recession did not end. Or rather, it did end, the economists told us, but we were not believing them, and so we did not behave as if it had ended, and thus we postponed its end.
Every week, capital-W Washington assured us that things were getting better; every week, the people who simply live here suspected that they weren't. Even here, in a local economy more stable than most, desperate car dealers stood all day in lots full of cars and empty of customers. Area banks began to lead the nation in bad real estate debt. Madison National failed, as the National Bank of Washington had before it. Other local banks were, in the quaint language of regulators, "ailing."
For the working middle class, there was the slow leak of jobs and confidence. Across the area there were increasing claims on Medicaid, unemployment, welfare. And even residents of our richest suburbs -- even Fairfax, even Montgomery -- experienced the shock of being asked to tighten their belts.
As for the homeless . . . what homeless? If anything changed for them, it was a barely perceptible acceleration toward the communal will not to see them at all.
Do something, America told Bush. Prime the pump. Tax the rich. Cut the deficit. Give the middle class a break. Help the poor (if there's anything left over). While you're at it, give us national health insurance.
For, despite all our common sense, hadn't we also come to believe in Ronald Reagan's pony?
We'll have to give it up, of course. Like teenagers, we grope our way toward reality, toward reconciling the extremes of false cheer and solitary despair. Maybe the soothing '90s will help us, if they ever begin. Until then, those of us who live in and around Washington can take heart from at least one glorious distraction, a single shared incantation:
How about those Redskins! Marjorie Williams's last story for the Magazine was "No Sex, Please! We're In Washington.