The story of the year
By Roger Rosenblatt
December 21, 1998
The story of the year? Oh, that was Monica, of course. Even after the week of a thousand ka-booms--the bombing of Iraq, the "bombshell" announcements of Congressman Livingston's "strayings" and resignation from the House, the impeachment vote itself--what else but Monica? But then you think, Was it that Monica? Or could the year's most significant story have been that of Monica MacBride, the geneticist, or of Joe Monica, the marine biologist, or of Monica Monica who plays the harmonica? It could be anyone, of any moniker, who works in obscurity and creates something whose importance is not visible at sea level. The story of the year, 1859: Would that be John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry and the onset of the American Civil War, or Darwin's Origin of Species?
Journalists are the last to know. We're like terriers on speed; our heads spin at the slightest rattle. But history is a mule in the thicket; it moves when it moves. If you ask me, the story of the year could just as easily have been the moment when Iran lifted its fatwah bounty off the head of Salman Rushdie, or when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami gave an interview to CNN--baby-step signs of a revised national policy regarding the Great Satan, us...
Or when the Vatican released a 14-page report declaring a genuine (if limited) repentance for the church's role in the Holocaust. Or when Cuba altered its attitude (somewhat) toward Christianity, and Castro invited the Pope for a visit. Or when Northern Ireland made a formal decision not to keep killing itself (for a while). The sound of one mind changing can make one hell of a yarn.
Several minds changing produced the stories of welfare-to-work programs and a beginning of a redefinition of the welfare state. Baby boomers turned toward religion. Increasingly the country turned away from gay bashing and other low-life thinking, as was indicated by the national revulsion at the beating to death of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. No one was more repelled by the truck-dragging murder of James Byrd Jr., a black man in Jasper, Texas, than Texans themselves.
The mind itself makes a hidden story. Harvard's E.O. Wilson came out with a book, Consilience, about the mind's inability to see the world as an integrated whole. The mind, says Wilson, tends toward false compartmentalization--which brings one back to the Monica story and the stunning compartmentalization of Clinton's mind. Picture him presiding with tears and nobility at the ceremony honoring those killed in the Africa embassy bombings. Picture the same man a couple of days later telling Hillary about Monica. That one mind can live in two such different worlds may be the story of the year.
People know a good story when they hear one. We are a narrative species: our brains function as storytelling organs in our frontal lobes, which, say neuroscientists, distinguish us from other animals. Evolution is a story, a beauty. We're stories as individuals; our DNA writes the plot, sometimes the theme. It is thought that children acquire language to tell the story that is already in them. Only a few weeks ago, the pure-science linguist Noam Chomsky, in another change of mind, said he now thinks a divine power gave us language in a single, inspired stroke.
If that's all true, it makes sense that people also know the stories they most want to hear...which again brings us back to Monica. The reason the public was ahead of the press on the Monica story was that it saw from the beginning where that story was likely to end--with Clinton out of the White House. Most people did not want that particular ending. They said so in the opinion polls and in the midterm elections. The press, on the other hand, thought it was still playing Watergate and pursued the story toward an ending the public did not seek. So did House Republicans. Eventually the press caught up with the people. Could that be the story of the year?
It all comes down to what stays with you, what sticks in your private, idiosyncratic craw. I'm not sure why, but I spent a lot more time thinking about the weather than about most other stories of the year. It's probably because the weather has to do with life outside modernity and control, which may also account for people's improbable fascination with the Weather Channel.
In my own craw sticks the story of the sinking of the four-masted schooner Fantome, which went down in the Caribbean after a losing battle of wits with Hurricane Mitch. Captain and crew were certain they had outsmarted the hurricane by hanging back, but Mitch decided to stall, and down went the Fantome in 180-m.p.h. winds and 50-ft. waves--31 people lost.
The story sticks because it is the story of every year--courage, skill, hubris and the best-laid plans brought low by nature, which does not care. The amazing thing is that we care; that we continue to be concerned with those in peril on the sea; that we continue to be interested in one another as a story and keep at the story of ourselves until, maybe, one day we'll get it right. The story of the year? It might have been the moment we looked up with that sweet old eagerness and hope and told each other a story.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: December 28, 1998
The story of the year
The Clinton in us all
The better half
How Starr sees it
The Starr report
The outrage that wasn't
Where the Right went wrong
On to the Senate
The rest of Monica
The friend from Hell
The indiscreet charm of Lucianne
The Speaker who never was