The world didn't just sit through the trials of both the tobacco industry and O.J. Simpson in 1995: it also welcomed in the sea changes that would shape the new millennium.
Excerpted from 1995: The Year the Future Began by W. Joseph Campbell (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of University of California Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Nineteen ninety-five was the inaugural year of the twenty-first century, a clear starting point for contemporary life.
It was “the year of the Internet,” when the World Wide Web entered mainstream consciousness, when now-familiar mainstays of the digital world such as Amazon.com, eBay, Craigslist, and Match.com established their presence online. It was, proclaimed an exuberant newspaper columnist at the time, “the year the Web started changing lives.”
Nineteen ninety-five was marked by a deepening national preoccupation with terrorism. The massive bombing in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, the deadliest act of domestic terror in U.S. history. Within weeks of the bombing, a portion of Pennsylvania Avenue—the “Main Street” of America—was closed to vehicular traffic near the White House, signaling the rise of security-related restrictions intended to thwart the terrorist threat—restrictions that have since become more common, more intrusive, more stringent, and perhaps even more accepted.
Nineteen ninety-five was the year of the sensational and absorbing “Trial of the Century,” when O.J. Simpson, the popular former football star, answered to charges that he had slashed to death his former wife and her friend. The trial stretched across much of the year, not unlike an indelible stain, ending in Simpson’s acquittal but not in the redemption of his public persona. Ironically, the trial’s most tedious stretches produced its most lasting contribution: the Simpson case introduced into popular consciousness the decisive potential of forensic DNA evidence in criminal investigations and legal proceedings.
Nineteen ninety-five brought an unmistakable though belated assertion of muscular U.S. diplomacy, ending the vicious war in Bosnia, Europe’s deadliest and most appalling conflict in forty years. Crafting a fragile peace in the Balkans gave rise to a sense of American hubris that was tragically misapplied not many years later, in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The year brought the first of several furtive sexual encounters between President Bill Clinton and a nominal White House intern twenty-seven years his junior, Monica Lewinsky. Their intermittent dalliance began in 1995 and eventually erupted in a lurid sex scandal that rocked the U.S. government and brought about the first-ever impeachment of an elected American president.
The emergence of the Internet, the deadliest act of homegrown terrorism on U.S. soil, the “Trial of the Century,” the muscular diplomacy of the United States, and the origins of a sex scandal at the highest levels of American government were significant events in 1995, and each is explored as a chapter of this book. They were profound in their respective ways, and, taken together, they define a watershed year at the cusp of the millennium. Nineteen ninety-five in many ways effectively marked the close of the one century, and the start of another.
With the critical distance afforded by the passing of twenty years, the exceptionality of 1995 emerges quite clearly. It was not altogether obvious at the close of 1995, at least not to commentators in the media who engaged in no small amount of hand-wringing about the year. A writer for the Boston Herald, for example, suggested that history books “may well remember 1995 as one sorry year.” It was, after all, the year when Israel’s prime minster, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, in the Kings of Israel Square. It was the year when a troubled woman named Susan Smith was tried and convicted on charges of drowning her two little boys in 1994, of having strapped them in their seats before rolling her car into a lake in South Carolina. Smith at first blamed an unknown black man for having hijacked the car and making off with the boys inside. She recanted several days later and confessed that she had killed her sons.
In a summing up at year’s end, the Philadelphia Inquirer recalled the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces systematically killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in what the United Nations had designated a safe area. “So base were the emotions, so dark the actions, that at times you had to wonder which century we were in,” the newspaper declared. “Was it 1995 or 1395? A tribal war with overtones of genocide? We bring you Bosnia and the mass graves at Srebrenica... At least there’s one difference between now and 600 years ago. The killing’s become more efficient.
But not all leave-taking assessments of 1995 were so grim. Reason magazine observed that, at the end of 1995, Americans were living the good old days; they “never had it so good.” Living standards, Reason argued, were higher than ever. Americans were healthier than ever. They had more leisure time than ever. “Americans will swear life is more hectic than it used to be, that there’s not enough time anymore. What’s crowding their lives, though, isn’t necessarily more work or more chores. It is the relentless chasing after the myriad leisure opportunities of a society that has more free time and more money to spend.”
It is striking how a sense of the improbable so often flavored the year and characterized its watershed moments. Oklahoma City was an utterly improbable setting for an attack of domestic terrorism of unprecedented dimension. Dayton, Ohio, was an improbable venue for weeks of multiparty negotiations that concluded by ending the faraway war in Bosnia. The private study and secluded hallway off the Oval Office at the White House were the improbable hiding places for Clinton’s dalliance with the twenty-two-year-old Lewinsky.
The improbable was a constant of the year. In February, a twenty-eight-year-old, Singapore-based futures trader named Nick Leeson brought down Barings PLC, Britain’s oldest merchant bank, after a series of ill-considered and mostly unsupervised investments staked to the price fluctuations of the Japanese stock market. Leeson’s bets went spectacularly wrong and cost Barings $1.38 billion, wiping out an aristocratic investment house that was 232 years old. The rogue trader spent four years in prison in Singapore and wrote a self-absorbed book in which he gloated that auditors “never dared ask me any basic questions, since they were afraid of looking stupid about not understanding futures and options.”
The most improbable prank of the year came in late October when Pierre Brassard, a twenty-nine-year-old radio show host in Montreal, impersonated Canada’s prime minister, Jean Chrétien, and got through by telephone to Elizabeth, the queen of England. Speaking in French and English, they discussed the absurd topic of the monarch’s plans for Halloween as well as the separatist referendum at the end of the month in Quebec, Canada’s French-speaking province. Could her majesty, Brassard asked, make a televised statement urging Quebecers to vote against the referendum? “We deeply believe that should your majesty have the kindness to make a public intervention,” said Brassard, “we think that your word could give back to the citizens of Quebec the pride of being members of a united country.” Replied the queen, after briefly consulting an adviser: “Do you think you could give me a text of what you would like me to say? ... I will probably be able to do something for you.” Their conversation was broadcast live on CKOI-FM and went on for seven minutes. Only after it ended did Buckingham Palace realize the queen had been duped.
Nineteen ninety-five was a memorable time for the U.S. space program. NASA that year launched its 100th human mission, sending a crew of five Americans and two Russians into Earth orbit on June 27. They traveled aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, which docked two days later with the Russian space station, Mir, forming what at the time was “the biggest craft ever assembled in space.” When Atlantis returned to Earth on July 7, it brought home from Mir Dr. Norman E. Thagard, an astronaut-physician who had logged 115 days in space, then an American space-endurance record. The year’s most improbable moment in space flight had come about five weeks earlier, on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. Woodpeckers in mating season punched no fewer than six dozen holes in the insulation protecting the external fuel tank of the shuttle Discovery. As the New York Times observed, the $2 billion spacecraft, “built to withstand the rigors of orbital flight, from blastoff to fiery re-entry,” was driven back to its hangar “by a flock of birds with mating on their minds.” Discovery’s flight was delayed by more than a month.
No celebrity sex scandal that year stirred as much comment and speculation as Hugh Grant’s improbable assignation in Hollywood with the pseudonymous Divine Brown, a twenty-three-year-old prostitute. The floppy-haired British actor, star of the soon-to-be-released motion picture Nine Months, had been dating one of the world’s most attractive models, Elizabeth Hurley, for eight years. On June 27 around 1:30 a.m., Grant was arrested in the streetwalker’s company in his white BMW. “Vice officers observed a prostitute go up to Mr. Grant’s window of his vehicle,” the Los Angeles police reported, and “they observed them have a conversation, then the known prostitute got into Mr. Grant’s vehicle and they drove a short distance and they were later observed to be engaged in an act of lewd conduct." Grant was chastened, but hardly shamed into seclusion. He went public with his contrition, saying on Larry King’s interview program on CNN that his conduct had been “disloyal and shabby and goatish.” When her agent told her the news about Grant’s dalliance, Hurley said she “felt like I’d been shot.” Their relationship survived, for a few years. They split up in 2000.
“Firsts,” alone, do not make a watershed year. But they can be contributing factors, and 1995 was distinguished by several notable firsts. For the first time, the Dow Jones Industrial Average broke the barrier of 5,000 points. The Dow set sixty-nine record-high closings during the year and, overall, was up by 33 percent. It was a remarkable run, the Dow’s best performance in twenty years. And it had been quite unforeseen by columnists and analysts at the outset of the year. John Crudele, for example, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that 1995 “could be the worst year for the stock market in a long time” and quoted an analyst as saying the Dow could plunge to 3,000 or 3,200 points. At year’s end, the Dow stood at 5,117.12.