An absorbing survey of America’s second Gilded Age.
Veteran journalist Johnson (The System, 1996, etc.) borrows a page from social historian Frederick Lewis Allen in sketching an account of “what in the future may be considered a distinct era in American history”—namely, the trend- and scandal-ridden 1990s. Four large themes occupy much of this unchallenging, reader-friendly study. On the first, the explosion of technology, Johnson ranges from gee-whiz optimism to should-we-worry pronouncements, echoing Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov’s comment on his loss to an IBM computer called Big Blue, “I'm a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I’m afraid.” On the second theme, the growing cult of celebrity and media power, Johnson offers well-honed observations on the now-shopworn O.J. Simpson murder trial and some of its attendant ironies, including a surge in SUV sales following the infamous Bronco chase; he is less successful at capturing the spirit of media tycoons such as David Geffen and Michael Bloomberg, both of whom he profiles. On the third, American culture and society at the dawn of the millennium, Johnson closely follows the ups and downs of the market, fashions, college-exam scores, and other telling indicators of modern life, while on the fourth, the career of William Jefferson Clinton, he does a solid job of portraying a president who survived his terms in office largely because his enemies persistently “misread the American public,” which, it seems, was more concerned with riding the wave of prosperity than punishing its leader for his considerable sins. Johnson’s approach is History Lite, with no discernible ideology, which makes this a strong candidate for use in survey courses.
A useful summary of recent events—and one that does Allen proud.