Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Review of William L. O'Neill, A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001

Jan 10, 2010 10:42 pm


Ron Briley: Review of William L. O'Neill, A Bubble in Time: America During the Interwar Years, 1989-2001



In this history of the 1990s, William L. O’Neill, professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University, again displays his courage in writing on contemporary history reminiscent of his classic study, Coming Apart: An Informal History of the 1960s (1975). In A Bubble in Time, O’Neill comes off as representative of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once termed the “vital center.” In his observations on the politics and culture of the 1990s, O’Neill will be sure to anger partisans of both the political left and right.
It is difficult to locate a center for this essentially narrative history of the decade, but in his preface, O’Neill explains, “. . . perhaps the greatest of many missed opportunities in the 1990s was not the failure to obtain universal health insurance, an early malfunction of the Clinton administration that destroyed its hopeful promise, but the absolute refusal of prominent American leaders on both sides of the aisle to reform the military so as to meet the challenges of the post Cold War world” (xi). Thus, O’Neill believes that both Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were unable to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s collapse and reduce defense spending along with restructuring the military to better address the challenges of counterinsurgency. O’Neill laments that neither President was able to alter the appetite of the military-industrial complex for expensive and outdated weapons systems. The 1990s were, accordingly, a bubble in time between the Cold War and War on Terror when opportunities were missed as what O’Neill terms the “tabloid nation” focused increasingly on the superficial issues of celebrity.
O’Neill generally treats George Bush the elder in somewhat sympathetic fashion. He observes the unfairness of Republican opponents calling the decorated World War II pilot “a wimp.” Although critical of mixed diplomatic signals sent to Baghdad in the days leading to Saddam Hussein’s ill-fated invasion of Kuwait, O’Neill credits Bush with developing a strategy during the First Persian Gulf War that avoided becoming bogged down in the sectarian politics of Iraq. Nevertheless, as Bill Clinton correctly surmised, Bush’s undoing politically would prove to be the economy, as the legacy of the Reagan deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy fostered a growing class division in the nation.
While acknowledging the intelligence and appeal of the youthful Clinton, O’Neill is highly critical of the President’s failure to address the growing class divide. Following a political approach which advanced his career at the expense of the Democratic Party, Clinton, influenced by pollster Dick Morris, moved to the political right by embracing such traditional Republican issues as deficit reduction, free trade, and welfare reform. O’Neill has even less use for Congressional Republicans under the leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who exploited “the rage, alienation, and despair of those who have lost ground economically” by focusing upon such moral and social issues as abortion, gun control, and gay rights. But O’Neill concludes that Republicans overplayed their hand in the attempted impeachment of Clinton following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. O’Neill writes that a majority of Americans did not want special prosecutor Kenneth Starr “and other icons of the right enacting their personal views into law, hounding minor offenders and putting their sexual activities on-line, censoring movies, and abolishing abortion. Given the choice between a pig and prude, they had come down not in favor of the former but against the latter” (336).
Although critical of a tabloid nation, O’Neill devotes a great deal of space to the analysis of social and cultural issues. For example, O’Neill spends considerable more time discussing the sexual harassment allegations made by Anita Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas than the elder Bush’s invasion of Panama. Other issues from the 1990s which receive little attention include environmental concerns such as global warming and the growing debate over immigration. The O. J. Simpson trial for murdering his wife and her male companion, however, warrants a full chapter. O’Neill asserts that although Simpson was clearly guilty, African Americans, especially women, were predisposed to find him innocent. But O’Neill neglects to develop the reasons for this predisposition. While not exonerating Simpson, the troubled historical legacy of lynching black men for alleged attacks against white women needs to be factored into the equation.
In fact, A Bubble in Time is often rather racially insensitive. O’Neill has little patience for affirmative action in higher education admissions, describing the policy as unnecessary reverse discrimination thirty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In addition, O’Neill aligns with many on the political right who employ the term “political correctness” in a pejorative sense, suggesting that excessive sensitivity to issues of race, gender, and sexual preference threatens freedom of speech on the nation’s campuses. Lamenting recent changes in higher education, O’Neill comes off as somewhat of a curmudgeon when he concludes, “The great paradox of higher education today is that while the workplace grows more and more competitive, colleges are graduating people whose ability to compete has been declining for decades” (311).
O’Neill’s objections to multiculturalism and diversity will certainly antagonize many on the political left, but he is even more critical of the George W. Bush Presidency following the missed opportunities of the 1990s. O’Neill observes, “Beneath the frivolity of the Clinton years dark forces had been gathering their strength, waiting for a chance to slouch toward Bethlehem, the opportunity that 9/11 would give them. Flying under the nation’s radar in little-read publications, think tanks, and other shadowy venues, neoconservatives and their allies plotted to invade Iraq, alienate the rest of the world, and ruin the American economy by means of runaway spending, massive tax cuts, and lax regulations—the trifecta of looting” (391).
O’Neill is not shy about stating his conclusions, and it is reflective of our increasingly partisan times that this well written and researched volume will antagonize many scholars as well as general readers.



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