I was in Washington DC the night Bill Clinton won the presidency. I had just voted for president for the first time ever, plus I had also volunteered for his campaign — so I managed to get into a victory party, in one of those sleazy-fancy ballrooms DC is full of. The DJ played “Celebrate” by Kool & The Gang and I have never danced so hard, like my feet were part of a runaway engine, too fast and too mighty to stop, belching smoke. The DJ turned the volume down for the “woo hooo” part of the song, so we could all hear ourselves shriek. I spied Jesse Jackson standing around, looking for a court to hold, so I walked up and shook his hand, and babbled something about how exciting this was. Jesse Jackson just stared at me, with a glassy, exhausted look in his eyes, like he already knew Bill Clinton wasn’t going to save anybody.
A decade and a half later, I wrote a novel about a group of idealistic young people living through Bill Clinton’s first two years in office. I tried to capture that mindblowing sugary onslaught of pure hope, and that sickly feeling as it slowly drained away. That novel never got published, and I keep wanting to go back to it and do something with it.
Here’s a snippet from the opening section, at Bill Clinton’s inauguration:
They were supposed to have four giant video screens showing the Reunion on the Mall, the big concert before Clinton's swearing-in, but the screen nearest them was busted. From where they sat, all the performers looked polyp-sized.
"Hey," Bing said. "Isn't that Bill Clinton on the stage?"
"That's Michael Bolton," Rae said.
"No way," Bing squinted harder. "That's definitely Bill Clinton. Look at the hair."
"I'm afraid Rae's right," Cecilia said. And if that didn't settle it, the figure started singing an old Sam Cooke song about being born in a tent.
"I'm surprised Fleetwood Mac isn't performing here. They were the engine of victory, with that 'Stop Thinking' song of theirs," Rae said.
"I think they're playing tomorrow," Cecilia said, "in one of those tents."
"I wonder if it's the same tent Michael Bolton was born in," Rae said.
The reason I know that Michael Bolton did a cover version of “A Change is Gonna Come” at Clinton’s inauguration concert on the Mall is because I did a fuckton of research for that novel. I went back and read loads of newspaper and magazine articles from 1993, as well as popular books from the time about politics and culture. And it was eye-opening, in the mid-2000s, to go back and revisit that unique moment in our history.
In retrospect, Bill Clinton becoming the first Democrat in the White House since the disco era was not the most significant thing about the 1992 election. At all.
People referred to 1992 as the “Year of the Woman,” and it really did represent a historic shift, one that has never been reversed. We went from two women Senators to a whopping six, including Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman Senator. The House of Representatives went from 34 women to 54 women. (By contrast, as of January 2020, there were 26 women in the Senate and 105 in the House.) The Clarence Thomas hearings and a wave of sexual harassment scandals, like Tailhook, spawned a fury that led to real, lasting change.
The 1992 election also saw a large number of new BIPOC members of Congress, in the wake of an effort to strengthen the Voting Rights Act and create more majority-minority districts. In particular, prior to 1992, there had been fewer than a dozen women of color in Congress, and there have been dozens since.
Anyway, I did a ton of research on Bill Clinton’s first two years in office, and it was fascinating and horrifying. There were plenty of unforced errors and ideological compromises on the part of the Clinton Administration, which caused untold pain to marginalized communities that were already suffering from Reaganism. The 1994 Crime Bill, the pledges to “mend not end” affirmative action, the pivot to being a deficit hawk after running on a platform of increased government spending. (The 1994 book False Hope: The Politics of Illusion in the Clinton Era by Norman Solomon was an invaluable resource that I dog-eared endlessly.)
But also? It was interesting to see how quickly the media veered from gushing about the Year of the Woman to worrying about the poor disadvantaged Angry White Man. The major newspapers, by the spring of 1993, were running slews of articles about this furious group of people who were being left behind. And meanwhile, Political Correctness (which had been a topic of discussion for a few years) became an all-consuming obsession among centrists and conservatives, and every tiny incident where someone got in trouble on campus was dissected and debated to death.
And this obsession with the Angry White Man helped to lead to the Republican sweep in the 1994 midterm elections and Newt Gingrich’s rise to power. And it also probably helped push Clinton into making some of those terrible compromises.
It’s easy to forget how hysterical people were in 1993 about the existential danger to white men poised by political correctness, along with the rise of women, BIPOC people and queers. The late winter and spring of 1993 also saw the release of the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down, in which a regular White guy finally snaps under the pressure. And the famous incident where Lorena Bobbitt mutilated her husband, which inspired a handful of copycat incidents around the world. I was shocked to realize how close together the release of Falling Down and the Bobbitt incident were.
A major turning point of the novel takes place in the 1993 gubernatorial election in New Jersey, which Democrat Jim Florio lost as a result of his pro-gun-control policies. In my version, Cecilia and Bing travel to New Jersey to canvass for Florio:
Cecilia's dad met them at the bus station, which looked like a great place to get amphetamines mixed with Fanta. Mr. Patterson had a mustache like Wimpy's (from the Popeye comics) and tufty gray hair. "So you're here to help save our governor," he said. "Good luck. He's got more negatives than a Foto Hut at rush hour."
The contrast between the Clinton '92 and Florio '93 campaigns in their final weekends was eye-opening in the way that tear gas isn't. …
Bing and Cecilia stood on a semi-suburban street corner and shoved pictures of Jim Florio at people coming in and out of Benetton and Laura Ashley. Their hot chocolates turned to pudding. For the first hour or so, they leapt on any passers-by who gave them the scantiest opening. People sidled past as if they were panhandling with hoses tied around their forearms. One guy got in their faces and growled about sky-high tax and empty gun rax. This was an Angry White Man. It's always disconcerting when you see a stereotype in the media, until you know it in all its one-dimensional glory, its single facet diamond-sharp, and you think of it as short-hand for a person who doesn't really exist. And then you meet someone who shamelessly, even vigorously, represents the stereotype.
Cecilia and Bing end up trying to convince a soccer mom to vote for Florio, but she says she doesn’t feel safe without a TEC-9 in the house in case she needs to protect herself from criminals. (And it’s weird to realize how far things have gone backwards on gun control since 1993-1994.)
So I guess what I learned about the 1992 election is, we actually made progress that seems permanent — like, it’s almost impossible now to imagine Congress with only a handful of white women and almost no women of color. But the Angry White Man thing has never really gone away, either, and it’s clearer than ever that it’s going to be with us for a long time. There will always be a backlash, and it’ll always be treated as important and legitimate.
And in retrospect, the choice to have Michael Bolton sing a classic Sam Cooke protest anthem should have been all the warning we needed that things were going to go bad.
I got a subscription to HBO Max, which has tons of great stuff (but I’m bummed there’s no Batman: the Animated Series, no Batman Beyond, no Justice League Unlimited, etc. Seems like a major oversight.) Two shows have really been making the subscription worthwhile: Doom Patrol, which is every bit as ridic as I had heard, and a great tribute to the Grant Morrison/Rachel Pollack era of the comic. And Harley Quinn, which I ended up loving after having a love-hate relationship with the first season (which had a few jokes that crossed the line, I thought.) Season one of Harley Quinn was lovely but flawed, but season two was a pure delight, and it’s now my favorite portrayal of Harley in any medium. No spoilers, but it goes in a really cool direction.
I wrote a pep talk for #NaNoWriMo!
The latest episode of Our Opinions Are Correct is about the nightmare of history, featuring a fascinating interview with P. Djeli Clark, author of the new book Ring Shout.
I did a short interview with Gary K. Wolfe for the amazing Coode Street Podcast, as part of their new “10 Minutes With” segment.
I’m still doing writing advice columns over at Tor.com, and the latest one is about becoming a Master of Time and Space.
And finally, another plug for my young adult debut, Victories Greater Than Death, which comes out in April and is available for pre-order now.