Much of today’s social and political unrest can be traced back to the change in who Americans voted for and how they consumed entertainment in the 1990s — and it’s no accident that that’s when the internet was born. On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, David Friend, Vanity Fair’s editor of creative development, talks about his new book, “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido,” and explains why today’s #MeToo movement owes a debt to Anita Hill.
You can listen to the entire interview here or in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: Recode Radio presents Recode Decode, coming to you from the Vox Media podcast network. Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as someone who spent all of the ’90s in shoulder pads, but in my spare time I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world the world we live in. You can find more episodes of Recode Decode on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen or podcasts, or just visit recode.net/podcasts for more.
Today in the red chair is David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair. He’s also the author of a new book called “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.” I had to have him on the show for that. It’s about the culture wars of the 1990s and the sexual history of the Clinton years. We’re going to talk also about the internet, because that’s when the internet was invented.
David Friend: Yeah, World Wide Web.
David, welcome to Recode Decode. I’m going to do a quick disclaimer. I’ve written for Vanity Fair. I’m not currently writing, I could, but I don’t have enough time, but I write for them, just so you know. I’m not going to be any nicer to you because of that.
Why don’t we go over ... You’ve been working for Vanity Fair for a long time, right? Is that correct?
Yeah. I was working at Life magazine, I was the director of photography, started the website.
The new Life magazine?
The new Life magazine. I started in 1978. Graydon Carter was there as a young writer when I was a young reporter running around the world with photographers and we got to know each other. He kept trying to get me to come to Vanity Fair.
This is after he took over for Tina, right?
Yeah. I said, “Look, I can’t, I’m having a great time.” He said, “David, nobody reads Life anymore. You know why? Come on and work with me.” He eventually ...
That always works on New York media types: “You’re irrelevant.”
Exactly. I remember him pitching me in ’93 saying, “I was with Princess Diana at a party last week. You’re going to go to parties, you’re going to be doing this and that.” He told me some great reasons to come over there and “we’re going to have a great time, it’s like a club,” which is what he was saying when he was starting Spy.
That’s my favorite.
I said, “I can’t.”
That was the ’80s. Spy was the ’80s.
Spy was the ’80s, great magazine, still funny. It still holds up, and Donald Trump was on many, many of the covers.
The captions alone were so terrible.
And the phrases.
Sassy and Spy were my favorite things from the ’80s, I have to say.
Oh, Sassy! Sure. God, that was a short-lived ...
It was Jane ... What’s her name? Jane ... So talented editor.
Not Jane Amsterdam. No, Jane, she did Manhattan Inc.
Manhattan Inc., which is also a great magazine.
It was a great magazine in the ’80s.
Jane Pratt. Then Graydon just sort of came back to me and said, “Let’s do it,” and I said, “I really, I can’t. I’m just doing this job at Life, I love it,” I was there for 20 years as well. Then in ’98, we just sort of said, “Let’s do it,” and I came over and he gave me this job. He said, “Look, I want you to be the news editor.” I said, “Graydon, I’ve been the news editor. I don’t want to be the news editor again, you know me as the news editor. I’d like to ...” and I invented a job. I said, “I want to do the extra shit, that’s the job.” Can I say this on Recode?
Yeah. You can say fuck if you want.
I said, “Why don’t I be the editor of the extra shit? You don’t do books, you don’t do television, you don’t do the web. Let me do those things.”
Conde Nast has somebody they tried to develop for magazines and stuff like that.
They do, but they didn’t in ’98 when I came aboard. I made that transition, which was really like going from mainstream America, middle America, middle-of-the-road white-bread magazine, to this cosmopolitan, sophisticated, sexy magazine, and magazine from the left, whereas Life you might argue was from the right. I was making a transition that I think the culture was making in the ’90s, so this was ’98. I accept the job, the first day I’m on the job, he calls me into his office and he says, “Let’s see if we can get Monica Lewinsky.” I said to him, “Yeah, okay,” because he knew I used to get great exclusives for Life, that’s one of the things I did.
I called Ginsburg, I forget his first name. The lawyer, Monica’s lawyer at the time. In any case, within 22 days we had this exclusive with Herb Ritts photographing Monica. Years later, when I was doing this book, I became quite close with Monica. She’s a friend of mine now, and I edit her at the magazine, in fact. She’s really terrific.
That’s how it all started out, was Graydon sort of ...
Pushing you. Pushing you, and since then you’ve been doing all kinds of things.
I do investigative pieces, I broke the Deep Throat story about Mark Felt being the Washington Post’s secret source.
That movie’s coming out, right?
The movie has come out, with Liam Neeson as Mark Felt. It’s terrific, in fact. It’s a great double feature if someone wants to get that and the Post movie. I ended up doing a lot of other things with Graydon, doing things that were visually driven, doing a lot of the editing of portfolios that we do, but also doing everything from, we’ve done 11 books together, I started the website. We’ve done a lot of different things.
Right. They did a whole bunch of books. Talk a little bit about that transition. He started at Vanity Fair and you started, the magazines were the center, and I just interviewed Tina Brown about her book, which is a terrific book also.
Fun book. Every page is fun.
Every page, it’s really good. One of the things was, she operated in the magazine’s hegemony era essentially, and then things shifted for you all. Can you talk a little about that, how you all conceived of a magazine as the internet moved in? I know you started the Hive and you guys started all the other things, but you’ve been a magazine-focused business.
Yes. I think what happened was that the company itself began to understand, Conde Nast began to understand, if you’re just thinking of magazines, you’re heading off the lemmings cliff. He ended up, Graydon, smartly, his first year, he had gone previously I think while he was at Spy or maybe it was in the New York Observer to Swifty Lazar’s party and said, “Let’s inherit that. Let’s take over the Oscar post party,” which he did in his second, maybe by ’95. In ’94, similarly, he had a lunch with David Halberstam.
They said, “You know what’s going on?” Yeah, one of the greats. They basically talked about, there’s a new idea that it’s not just media and it’s not just what’s going on up in Silicon Valley, which is new, and it’s not just what’s going on in Wall Street. There’s a thing called a new establishment, and they came up with this notion of the new establishment. Graydon made that another tent pole. You’ve been at the Vanity Fair summit, which is really all tied in with the new establishment. Graydon started those two new tent poles, and they became events, and they became ways of looking at the culture in a very exciting way that was vital, but also that extended the brand into new things. ’94, I think it was. 2004, I started the website. We realized we had to do that. It was so dumb ...
Yeah, a little late there, Dave.
The company wasn’t doing it. Si did not want to move into the digital realm and distract from the magazines. We were late, but it was, Graydon and I, I remember bringing over to his house one day when we were doing the design. The main hom page were people sitting around a table. We said this was a conversation. It was drawings by Tim Schafer of Dominick Dunne. If you clicked on Dominick Dunne, you’d get his piece that week. If you clicked on Annie Leibovitz ...
It was so static. We immediately said, “No, this isn’t going to work.” It was pretty exciting, but I realized as I did with all the things that I started doing at the magazine was, I needed to begin them, and then turn them over to a younger, smarter person. I would eat my life up, the hours on these things, and then we’d just move on to the next one. We did some television together and some other things. This was Graydon’s concept and I think Radhika’s thinking this way too.
This is the new editor, Radhika Jones?
I’m sorry, yeah. Radhika Jones, who’s come aboard as of December 19th. She’s just going great guns.
So a different era now for magazines? I mean, there’s obviously pullback at Conde Nast and other magazine companies from the glory days. What do you envision that being now? Not just Vanity Fair itself, but the concept of those magazines.
A magazine is really, I hate the phrase brand, but that’s really, it’s what is the ... The magazine DNA remains, but it’s become something new. It’s become this multi-pronged entity that people, especially with legacy brands and luxury brands, think of across many different platforms, and that’s what we have to do.
We’re thinking in many different ways, whether it be television, whether it be a lot of the articles that we do that we have potential rights for or not depending on the writer. We’re doing some things like that, where some of the writers we’re using, their pieces are being made into films. We’re coupling with others to do investigative pieces from time to time, whether it be ProPublica or whomever. We’ve got stuff ... We do things with CBS on “60 Minutes” and etc., etc. The Hive is really very exciting, we’re expanding ...
That’s your online site?
The Hive is, you know, people get that as a newsletter, maybe people go to that each day or it’s pushed to them with ... covering power, covering everything from Silicon Valley to New York to Washington and beyond. It’s very, these are exciting times, but they’re also, the funding at different places, some of it goes to digital ...
Yeah, it’s changed. It’s not the only game. For a while, Vanity Fair was the game for that particular kind of journalism, or New Yorker had its kind of thing going on, also a Conde Nast property.
People still look at us and say, no one’s putting together the long-form stories and the short funny stories and the beautiful photography and the illustration in a way that we are with the sensibility of a curator like Graydon and now like Radhika Jones.
How long does that last? People have a different — we’re going to get to your book in a second to talk about where it all started. That’s why I want to set it up. Where does it go? Where do you envision, I mean, you were at Life, which was the iconic magazine that kind of got killed over time, like, the original original Life.
It would be a great time for Life now. It’s a visual world right now. It’s the perfect time. Time Inc. can’t, it trips over its feet all the time, it cannot figure it out. It isn’t Time Inc., what is it going to be called now?
Koch Inc. I don’t know.
I don’t agree with, I believe it was Kurt Anderson, but he’s very sage on some of these topics, and he was ...
Another original founder of Spy.
Another original founder of Spy and a writer for Vanity Fair. He said in the piece in the New York Times, I believe it was Kurt, that we’ve reached the 100-year mark for magazines, that they really, the heyday of magazines were the 1920s and now we’re about to go into the 2020s, and you really had in the ’20s the great thing, Vanity Fair, and Time magazine started and the New Yorker started and Esquire started and Fortune started in the ’30s. Maybe we’ve seen some of the best days of this medium, and it’ll become something else. There’s still a lot of kick in this gal, or whatever everyone is saying which is gender-non-specific.
The interesting thing about reading your book and also Tina’s book is that there is still rampant insecurity even at the height. There was never a moment to enjoy it.
How do you feel? Do you sense that too?
Yeah. I’ve left your area long ago.
No, but I mean in terms of, if you’re succeeding at this level, there’s always the tension ...
No, I never ... No.
In our world there is ...
No. This is why I don’t live in New York in the media world. I don’t care to listen to you all gripe about things.
I love it, I love it. Maybe you’re right. I feel that when I’m here.
I might’ve been infected by Silicon Valley. I just move on to the next thing.
That’s very healthy of you. Kara, I want to say.
Don’t compliment me.
No, that’s right.
The reason I wanted to get to it is because I wanted to talk about your book. Talk about the conception of your book, and then in the next section, we’ll talk about the specifics and some of the stories.
The conception of the book was crazy. Well, what was I doing in the ’90s? I had kids, I was raising a boy and a girl. My daughter was doing sit-ups every day to get washboard abs because she wanted to look like Britney Spears, she was 10.
Oh, yeah. That.
My son was playing these massive multiplayer games at night on the internet with strange men, who knows what was going on, you know?
We’re getting right into the libido, aren’t we?
My wife and I said, “What is this guy doing? What is our son doing?” It turns out, I stole one night, I went in his room and stole his joystick, which is very Freudian. He took up guitar, and now he’s a jazz guitarist in New Orleans. I said, “What’s going on with the sexualized culture we’re living in the ’90s and kids we’re raising?”
Yeah, ’80s, but Madonna, every woman I interviewed, many of the women I interviewed for this book, I said, “Is there one person that comes back as an icon for you?” and Madonna really was key and important. Yes, Hillary Clinton. Yes, I list a number of icons, Ellen Degeneres and Demi Moore, Annie Leibovitz and others who are so important. Anita Hill we can get to.
I really feel that what kicked off this book was I had dinner in 2007 or 8 with a cardiologist friend of mine. He said to me, “David, you know, let me tell you the backstory of Viagra.” I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, a lot of the patients in these trials was for a heart drug. It was for hypertension. A lot of the patients had this little side effect, and they were hoarding the pills. The wives were complaining or the partners were complaining when we took them off the pills.” I said, “Boy, that’s, if I can get the backstory of how the chemists and the marketing people, the real story about Viagra,” and there’s two chapters devoted to it, how this all happened, “and I can do this for other great crazy stories in the ’90s, I’ve got a book in this, and I’ll have a fun book in this.” It really was a fun thing to do over the course of the ... Because I have a real job, it took me six years to do it.
I interviewed the sisters that invented the Brazilian bikini wax.
Oh, the Brazilian bikini wax.
I found Patient Zero, the first woman in America to have a Brazilian bikini wax in 1990, January 1990.
David, you’re a hard-hitting reporter.
I really left no stone unturned. I interviewed people like Anita Hill, people like ...
What about the ’90s would capture you? A lot of people felt kind of the ’80s, actually, and that was really the Clinton years, this was the end of the Clinton years and the beginning of the Bush years, and sort of bad things. ’80s were sort of very go-go.
’80s were go-go. People had written about the ’80s. No one had written about the ’90s, maybe Joseph Stiglitz had done “The Roaring Nineties,” a book on the economy in the ’90s, but it still seemed fodder to explore. It also was the period that I believe that, you think of the ’60s and you say, that’s the naughty decade. That’s the decade of Haight-Ashbury and free love and the pill and the Playboy philosophy or whatever, all the things, and “love the one you’re with.”
Really, what happened was, I believe, and this is one of the main theses of the book is that the boomers took over, they started raising children, they started coming of age. They started becoming the powerful people that ran Hollywood, that ran Madison Avenue, and for the first time, ran the White House. Suddenly you had the counterculture becoming the culture. You had their values becoming the main values of America, which had took 25 years, it took the coming of age of those boomers to then change society.
I saw this drift and this shift and saw the culture wars in the ’90s. It began under Reagan, you’re right, in the ’80s, and Bush 1 in the ’80s into the ’90s, but really the morning after Clinton was inaugurated, it was ...
It was January.
In January of 1993, Penny Noonan writing, “The trumpets have sounded. Get ready for a big fall, because you guys, you’re terrific, everyone loves you, but it’s time for a change.”
Yeah, it’s still resonating today. All right. We’re here with David Friend, he has a new book out about the ’90s called “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.” Were the last ’90s, the 1890s, naughty too?
Yeah, they were naughty too. These are all the, how do you pronounce it? Fin de siecle?
Yeah, fin de siecle.
Fin de siecle, yeah.
It’s about the culture wars of the 1990s and the sexual history of the Clinton years. We’re going to talk about that and more. It’s also the time when the internet was invented and became popular throughout the ’90s and really, really did, of all the things in the ’90s, I’m going to go with the internet is the most important.
We’re going to talk about that and more with David Friend.
We’re here on Recode Decode with David Friend. He’s an editor at Vanity Fair but he’s talking about his new book called “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.” It’s also the triumph of the internet. That’s when I started covering the internet, the early ’90s, the beginning of AOL, the commercialization of the internet and when Al Gore actually did invent the internet by creating critical legislation to take it into the public realm.
Let’s start with that. I think the internet’s invention really changed everything. I mean, we’re going to talk about all the different characters ...
It changed everything for a lot of different reasons. My book has two chapters about the sexual history of the World Wide Web.
That was a critical part, especially gay.
Here we go. What happened, young people for instance, the entire sexual smorgasbord became available before really they were mature enough to understand it. It changed human interaction in ways that we had never seen before.
And still don’t understand.
And still don’t understand, and adults don’t understand half the time. How do we have all this variety and how do we have all this abundance in an area where really scarcity used to be the appeal of sexuality?
Porn was one of the most critical. I mean, it was really interesting because when I started covering the internet in the very early days, the porn people were the most creative and innovative people in terms of delivery. All kinds of companies were there. It was either through message boards and people talking to each other, or it was delivery the way ... They were the first people to do subscriptions, I remember.
That’s absolutely right. William Burrows, another San Francisco sage like yourself, said apropos of porn, but really said that sex is the virus that’s always searching for a new host. I look at the internet, and I look at all new technologies almost as infants. They’re new platforms, and sure enough, what happens in the 1450s when you’ve got the Gutenberg Bible, the next thing that comes off the line ...
... is erotic prose, exactly. Daguerre invents the camera, and pretty soon you can go into a Paris shop and in the back under the counter, they’ll sell you dirty pictures. This is really what happens in new technology and a lot of the innovation that came and a lot of the platforms we used were sexual in nature.
I interviewed Jane Metcalfe who co-founded Wired with Louis. It was really, she spent some time talking about the MOOs and MUDs, these weird areas that people very early in 1991, ’92, where people were sort of fantasizing, living in these fantasy worlds and creating these new personas that then metastasize in the real world as Burning Man. People were experimenting sexually on these boards, and it was really extremely popular.
I interviewed Michael Wolff, who’s in the news every day, and he spent some time, I interviewed him about, I said, “Give me the back-of-the-napkin ticktock of why sex was the killer app that drove the internet when it first began.”
Let’s be clear, people may not know this about Michael, but he had an internet company that failed that he wrote a fantastic book about that was very funny.
Very good, “Burn Rate.”
He said, here’s why ... Two things that he saw right at the beginning was that people were communicating on platforms ... It was very difficult to get into the internet pre-browser.
Yeah. It was called online services.
Online services. You had WELL, but you also had ...
You had these clubby areas like Echo and WELL, MindVox. You had these areas where people were communicating, but you had to be in academia or you had to be in the military. You had to know code, you had to sort of understand it to get into it. They were really wonderful ways to connect, but a lot of it became sexual talk.
AOL was the font of that.
Then there were these closed systems like AOL, and Michael was talking about this, you had Prodigy, you had CompuServe ...
Which were not like that.
Were not like that. AOL was this place where they did not censor.
They didn’t censor. It was interesting, because I had a chapter in my book about AOL that came out in the ’90s talking ... I think it was called The House That Sex Chat Built, because that’s what really was behind, a lot of sites were like that, they relied on it. AOL really did remove barriers. Prodigy was highly curated and highly controlled in the way old magazines were, old media. They sort of mimicked the same thing as gatekeepers, really, and AOL removed the gates essentially and said, “Anything goes.” I can’t underscore how much sex was such an important part of the early internet — and it still is, obviously, but other things have moved to the fore at the same time.
It was also that porn and sex and these conversations were always sort of ... One, you were with another person. Now it was totally anonymous, and it was intimate in a way that people did not know what you were doing. The embarrassment and shame ...
Right, you didn’t have to skulk into an icky store, and dangerous sometimes.
Yeah, the shame left. Yeah. You were saying this is true for the LGBT community as well.
100 percent. PlanetOut was an AOL investment and it was really fascinating how quickly people — in good ways — that people were isolated and say you were in the Midwest, I remember they had 20 members from Vatican City, which I’m surprised it wasn’t higher. It was really interesting to watch that. Steve Case talked a lot about that, in terms of leaving people to do what they wanted to do. It sort of popped a cork on society in a lot of ways, I think, the internet did.
Well, I talked to Steven Meisel who’s a friend of mine who’s in the photography world. He said as a gay man, he spent ... A lot of the use of the internet was sending pictures of yourself to others. He felt very uncomfortable in gay bars. He felt very uncomfortable in social situations where he had to impress others, because he’s not a wonderful physical specimen in his own mind. Yet, he felt liberated in this new way where you could trade pictures, where you could meet people in different ways. He said it was sort of like that period where Polaroids were used to document the male and attract the male gaze in his world, and he basically felt that you could not go to a store and have your pictures developed. If you had a Polaroid, you didn’t have to do that.
That’s right, that’s a really fair point.
It was illegal otherwise, because in many states up to the year 2000, it was illegal to have, trade in pictures like this. Sodomy was illegal. Here was a new way to connect with others in a liberating way.
Yeah, absolutely. Let’s talk more broadly about the ’80s. Start at the beginning. I think you were mentioning Anita Hill, that was a critical, also a very, it sounds crazy, but an internet moment. We’ve always these sort of big, you know, OJ was another one, there’s a whole bunch of things around that that became so viral, I guess that’s the word to use.
Yeah. Anita Hill, so ’91 before the World Wide Web, but was really, the entire nation stopped and watched the hearings. What happened was — and I’ve interviewed Anita a couple of times, she came to one of my book signings in Boston, she’s just a terrific person. She’s now involved in a new commission to look at sexual harassment in the entertainment field. They don’t know what they’re doing yet, but they’re beginning to make these inroads and trying to make systemic changes that really hopefully will be long-lasting.
In 1991, she had been approached by the FBI and the Senate Committee that was looking into allegations ...
Clarence Thomas, right.
Allegations that George H.W. Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, had some experiences in the past where he was exhibiting sexual misconduct with underlings, where he was misbehaving. He denied all of them. She ended up in the 1980s, when she was working for him at two separate jobs, confiding in four, five or six friends ...
The EOC, yeah.
At the EOC, it was her second job with him, yes. That ironically was the area in the government ...
You’re supposed to be able to make complaints.
Yeah, where you would go and make complaints. She felt uncomfortable being the only person who had come forward, and yet, over time, as they were doing their investigation, they said, “Look, you’ve got to go do this. We have all this information.” She finally felt comfortable saying, “Look, I can do my own statement. I’ll come and testify.”
She was a very devout Baptist, grew up in Oklahoma. The sexes were separated within her church. She went on to Yale, she went on to law school, she’s a teacher of law at Brandeis now, very respected. She had these experiences where her boss would come onto her, ask her on dates, talk about her clothing, start having very crude sexual comments about pornographic films that he saw. She kept saying, “Stop this, I’m really uncomfortable with this.”
It became a real pattern with him. As Jane Meyer and Jill Abramson found out when researching their book that followed this in 1992 or 3 — I think it was called “Strange Justice” — he in fact had a pattern of some of this behavior and some of the other people who ... they interviewed others who did not testify, but she came and talked in front of the nation and a strange thing happened. She described these things in front of an all-white, all-male Senate committee.
Yeah, so much has changed.
And the entire nation was riveted. At the end of it, the poll said six out of 10 people believed him, not her. Clarence Thomas came out and said, “This is a high-tech lynching. Why are we doing this thing? No man or woman should be brought in front of the country with these sort of accusations.” It really was weird in 1991, it seems odd today, but in 1991, it was weird to hear pubic hairs discussed.
Yeah, and cocks.
And Long Dong Silver.
Can you imagine — we’re going to get to more in the next section — but can you imagine it today, with all the social media? It felt the first time everyone was going a little crazy, but you mentioned a Twitter version of this?
I think we unfortunately are living that right now, where people are waking up every morning to see which person is brought down and what the smarmy details of it are. There is this ... It may have set the stage for that, too.
Imagine Anita Hill with Twitter and Facebook and stuff like that.
Well, you would have a me-too moment then. Had you had the social media, you would have other people who are saying, “Wait a second, I stand with Anita. This happened to me too. I remember when XYZ happened.” Even though he denied it, they needed this Republican seat to be filled on the court. He’s done terrible damage to this country since then, I believe.
He’s incompetent. That’s really pretty much ...
What happened, though? Yeah, he doesn’t talk half the time. What happened? Women were so enraged, that there was a record number of, there were 28 Senators and Congressmen voted in the next year in what was then called the Anita Hill class, they went and ran for office and changed the complexion — it is no longer the case, but at the time changed the complexion of the legislative branch of the country. You had a two- to three-fold rise in complaints about sexual harassment in the workplace in the year that followed, and it kept going up and up and up. I think the women who are complaining today and making these accusations are standing on the shoulders of Anita Hill, who really was a pioneer in this way.
Hopefully there’ll be some change because of it.
We’re going to get to this in the next section, but then it just continued through the Bill Clinton years, because that was a highly sexualized presidency, I don’t know how else to put it, it really was.
Yeah. I mean, I sort of look at that moment ...
I mean, it’s always been skulking around in the background of all these, you remember the guy who was frolicking with that Congressman. There was always a sex scandal in Washington.
There’s always, but this was one that became so public, you have on the front page of the New York Times because of tape recordings between Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp made public, private conversations that were illegally taped in the state of Maryland or wherever it was, just put out there on the internet. You had for the first time on the front page of the Times the word “fuck.” It was, I think the phrase was something like, “That fucking guy,” or something one of them said.
Now, all these years later, we have Donald Trump talking with Billy Bush in a front-page story of the New York Times has the president using — the candidate who would become president — using the words “fuck” and “pussy” in the New York Times. This is how it’s changed.
There was a phrase that summed it up, it was the opening paragraph of Philip Roth’s book “The Human Stain,” which talked about the summer of 1998, in which the president’s, it was the summer that the president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and something like America was struggling with sexuality as we have always been struggling with sexuality. It became a sexual overlay to the culture.
We’ve talked about porn, we’ve talked about the internet, we’ve talked about, there’s really this mainstreamization of porn, MTV was going, young people were watching it. The entire culture was saturated in this. Yes, it was politicians ensnared in scandal, but also think about what was going in your daytime. You’d woke up and daytime television were these trash talk shows, Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones. These were shows that began in the ’80s, but in the ’90s, you could not go through the day without seeing ...
Yeah. Reality television was the next version.
Exactly. 1992 was the first reality television show.
What was that? Which one was first?
MTV’s “Real World.” It began sort of as a good experiment. People were living in this apartment in New York and how were they interacting. By the end of the decade, by ’99 it was really a lot about sex.
It was like “Network” came alive. It was like the movie “Network” came alive.
Yes, it was.
You go watch that movie.
“I just won’t take it anymore!” Has it held up?
It doesn’t just hold up, we have every one of those shows. You have to go watch it. You know, “Sybil the Soothsayer,” I mean honestly, every single show she created, the Faye Dunaway character created, exists and seems tame at this point.
Crazy screaming Howard Beale, it’s like Sean Hannity or whatever, pick your idiotic television personality.
Speaking of Sean Hannity, what else did you have? Not only did you have tabloid television shows in addition to reality shows, tabloid television was at one point in 1996, there was 16 news magazines or tabloid TV shows that were cheaper than regular programming, and many of them were sleazy. Many of them were good journalism, but many of them were sleazy.
Then you had this new thing in ’96, Fox News, and ’97 was MSNBC. They were competing with CNN. CNN had started in ’79, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that it really came of age. Here you had many hours to fill, and what filled it really for Fox News was much more scandal than the other shows. You had this diet in American life that was really sexually supercharged, and a lot of it was fueled by the Clinton scandal. I don’t call it the Lewinsky scandal, because it shouldn’t be called the Lewinsky scandal.
You had a lot of that, and you had then the impeachment. You go from the Gulf War in ’91 to this saga that every day was Desert Storm. Then you go to the OJ Simpson saga, which went on for 300, 400 days in a row, and some of those same players, the on-air personalities were then there in the Clinton drama and the impeachment. Then you had the hanging chads of the 2000 election with Gore vs Bush. It just became a series of ensemble cast shows that we were all watching, and it became entertainment.
Which continues to this day, actually. We’re going to talk about the repercussions. It’s funny you used “naughty,” because naughty is sort of a happy word, but it sounds toxic to me.
Yeah. I used the word “triumph” to, and I made it ironically.
Well, you’re trying to sell a book.
Yeah, but I also mean it ironically. It’s not really ... Naughty is, it’s much more negative in the last four months.
Yeah. Absolutely. We’re going to talk about that in the repercussions of the ’90s, because you just named like 10 things, I’m having a PTSD moment right now, I forgot a couple of them. We’re going to talk about the repercussions now, because they really have it, all of them, from the internet to the Clintons to reality shows to Fox News.
We’re here with David Friend, the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair. He’s also the author of a new book called “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.” It’s about the culture wars of the 1990s and the sexual history of the Clinton years. When we get back, we’re going to talk about how those ’90s impacted today.
We’re here with David Friend. He’s the author of a new book called “The Naughty Nineties.” One of the things we’ve just talked about is how much of this stuff that we’re dealing with and coping with today started then, really did in a lot of ways. This sexualized culture, the boom in the internet, the widespread virality of news and how things ... the toxic political culture. The rise of the religious right was also during that time, slightly before, but in that time period, obviously Anita Hill. What am I missing? A lot happened then.
You’re talking about the culture wars, but in many ways ...
It started with the Reagan administration.
It did. It started really in that period, Moral Majority in the late ’70s, you had Reagan riding that wave into office. What you really had were 12 years where people got really tired of this, and there was a reaction to it. This is why we got Bill Clinton and we almost got Gore, I believe we should’ve gotten Gore. There was some craziness that was going in Florida.
What happened was I think a moral shift. While Bill Clinton espoused a sort of moral relativism, everybody should not be judged the same way. Even though he was a man of faith and had a Baptist background, he was a man who was also unfaithful. His morality was sort of amorphous. You had on the other side a strict, stringent idea of what morality was, epitomized by the 1992 Republican Convention in which Pat Buchanan said, “We are fighting a cultural war.”
I remember. I was in Germany and I was shocked by it.
I think — who was it? — Molly Ivins said it read better in the original journal. It was really scary. Neither side was attractive. You had this sort of sense that we were morally adrift. I think in the movies in the ’90s, “Pulp Fiction” ... I talked to Woody Allen about this, I interviewed Woody for the book, and we didn’t talk, he refused to talk about his own problems in the ’90s with his own marital life.
That’s a shock.
He talked a lot about it in the ’90s to Time magazine and to Music and “60 Minutes,” but he wouldn’t go there. What he did say, I said, “I think everything changed in 1989 with ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’” where a man arranges a killing. Martin Landau arranges to kill the character of Angelica Houston and gets away with it scot-free.
That movie sticks with me. I agree with you. I remember, I was just thinking the other day ...
I just got the chills as you’re saying it.
Yeah, I was thinking of it literally the other day.
Yeah. I think this was part of what we were then seeing. The Coen Brothers, “Fargo.”
I was thinking of someone, that’s why.
I know Eric’s been doing a good job here.
I was thinking would I feel bad, and then I remember that movie. I didn’t really, possibly not.
This happened throughout that era. You had films that were morally ... “Goodfellas.” It led to 1999, “The Sopranos.”
The hero was a killer.
You had a mobster who had to go to a shrink and what is that about? I think you had this sort of moral, lack of a moral center. We weren’t getting that from the government, we weren’t getting that from our leaders. I went to — it’s interesting, this sounds like a non sequitur, but I went to a wedding recently and the mother of the bride said in some of the remarks at the end, “I feel so happy that both these kids who were getting married have never cut a corner in their life.”
I think what happened in the ’90s and what’s happened — and I thought immediately of Donald Trump who talked about not paying his taxes and he did that because he was smart, he said to do that — that we tried to game the system throughout that period. It became the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, where here are two heroes, the greatest home run race since 1961, and it turned out they were both doctored, taking steroids or some sort of enhancement. You had Lance Armstrong who began his race to the finish line, and we know what he was on. Everyone was gaming things, and especially in the bedroom. Viagra was this new thing that allowed anyone to have sex or allowed people who were unable to.
For all the positive things, there was this sort of sense that we could fake everything. There’s a lot in the book about cosmetic surgery. I interviewed Joan Rivers about that at length.
Which killed her.
Well, she was having a tracheotomy thing she was going in for, and they tried to do both things at the same time, which was a problem. The whole decade seemed to be about that. I really do, we’re living in the age of lies.
Talk about the repercussions when we finish up. What have been the repercussions? The 2000s were really about innovation and technology and the rise of Facebook, the iPhone, so many fantastic innovations. Again, we seem to be in another one of those periods of something, something bad.
Well, you did have the world economic crash of 2008, 2009.
And 9/11, it made people, it unmoored the nation in the ...
And the crash of the internet at the beginning of the 2000s. Everything just came apart. It really was, and it did put a full stop, and then 9/11, it just put a full stop to everything, I think.
What does it make people want to do to make America great again? They want to go back, and they have these bromides, they want to put Band-Aids on the problem, when in fact you need whole big systemic change.
This is why we’re able to have a charlatan in the same way that people believed in the tent show people who come by with elixirs. There could be no bigger liar. I mean, you look at the man, 71 percent I think Politifact had, 71 percent at the end of the campaign, 71 percent of Donald Trump’s statements were false. It was Mayor McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “Every word out of her mouth is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” We have this president, he’s just ...
I’m going to give him the ‘ands’ and ‘thes,’ but okay.
I think that’s what we had. Clinton, I mean, not that ...
I think, yes, it started way back with Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr were saying lies about each other, and we went through Nixon and Johnson and all those. Now, we had in the 2000s an honest president. We had a fact-based presidency. It feels right now like that was a paradise.
Which one is real, the real America? The ’90s, there’s so much that went on there that was so American, and at the same time horrible. Today it feels like a restatement of that in lots of ways, including the sex stuff, because now it’s gotten even more, I mean the people are worried about tech addiction and the use of tech and how people meet each other and dating. It’s just continued to morph into an even more worse version of the 1990s.
Yeah. I think it’s a healthy one, too. I think if there’s any silver lining in all of this, I would say it would be if men just stopped and let women take over for a while.
I’ve always thought that, David.
And the other is if people would just get off social media for a while. People need to take a break, because this is really, there was a great piece in the Atlantic recently about kids — and we’re talking about 2008, 2009 — but the economic crash meant that kids, after they graduated college, had to go live with their parents. You had many people who were not dating in a proper way.
Right, right, and then had the internet.
And then they had the internet. There was a 50 percent breakthrough in the number of kids having their phones there. They would wake up in the morning with the phone, fall asleep with the phone. We are now living a very unreal life with our devices and are having more distance from one another even as we are having these wonderful creations.
Let’s finish up and talk about sort of the, not the repercussions, but name from your perspective the three or four critical things from the ’90s, and then what you imagine, both good and bad. Start with the good things.
I would say the good things are what the Clinton administration brought us were a number of breakthroughs for workplace guidelines, for domestic violence issues. On his watch we had civil unions for the first time recognized.
Well, I’m not going to give the Clintons any ... Don’t ask, don’t tell.
You asked about the ’90s, but yeah, don’t ask, don’t tell was terrible. I have a whole chapter on don’t ask, don’t tell. You had a belief in women that had not been espoused by a president or an administration prior to that. The problems that he had, he still did, and I talked to Dee Dee Myers at length about this, he did surround himself with very smart women and brought many more women into government.
Oddly enough, so does Trump.
He surrounds himself with important women in his life, but the people who make the decisions are just all white male, it looks like a ’90s cigar bar.
Wolff was writing about this a little bit, like how he feels that women serve him better because he has all these ...
Yeah, that’s true. That’s probably true. That’s a positive. The internet as you mentioned, I think that changed how we do economics, communication, information, even relating to one another. I would also say that the ’90s were a period of self-absorption that we are in now. This is a real negative. We have this sort of sense of voyeurism, of exhibitionism. People weren’t ever like that before.
There’s a narcissism in the culture, and I talked to Dr. Drew Pinsky who did Loveline during that period, and he talked at length about how similar we appeared to be in the ’90s to the Aztecs, who were really, they treated the young very poorly. They were all self-absorbed, there was a lot of human sacrifice. We’re using the internet to sacrifice people. We feel bad about that, so we have these resurrection stories. It becomes the sort of sense of entertainment.
The other thing I would say is that we have this ... We’re an audience. We’re watching television, the internet, the saga, the spectacle, Guy Debord talked about the society of the spectacle when he was writing in the ’70s. This is what we’re doing, is we’re living to be entertained.
I think that’s one of the reasons that unfortunately Donald Trump won. Yes, he was appealing to a disaffected group voted for him — forget about Comey, forget about the Russians, whatever reasons, forget about the bad campaign that Hillary ran. He was appealing to a certain group, but he also was appealing to a nation of couch potatoes, people who wanted to be entertained.
This was, if you look at ...
I didn’t realize reality television started in the ’90s.
’92, yeah. Then it became this thing that he became part of, World Wrestling Federation was the ’90s, and he used to have some of those fights at the Atlantic City casino that he ran, and he was part of it. This is really like, what really was happening was this sort of crazy thing that you know the fights are going on and it’s fixed.
I want to end it off, how does it change then? Obviously the resonance of the ’90s is still with us in lots of ways and you’re seeing the fruits of it. What changes? The very last question I want you to answer, what are the 2090s going to be? First answer the first one. Where does it go?
I think people are left to look at themselves, they don’t trust their government. They didn’t trust their government under ... One of the reasons Trump won is they didn’t want to have yet another establishment. We had Bush followed by Clinton followed by Bush followed by Obama-Clinton. They wanted something different.
Now that that has been breached and that social contract is invalidated by this liar in chief, they realize what matters is their own selves, their own communities, their own morality, because people, I think, are generally — I’m a glass-half-full person — are generally good. They’re recognizing that their government by and large has been generally bad to them. Not the courts so much, but certainly the legislative and executive branches lately.
I think you will see in activism, you are going to see people who are running for office who have never done that, people who are engaged in their community. I do see this in people changing since that.
What’s going to happen in 2090?
Another naughty period.
Another ’90s. I think unfortunately, I kept talking about the downsides of the changes in the internet to my friend David Kirkpatrick, who I know you know. David said, he said to me, “They can’t all be wrong. When billions of people choose to communicate electronically with one another, that changes what it means to be human. We can’t stop this anymore.”
No, nobody can stop this. I don’t think it’s a question of wrong.
I was saying that I think the downsides ...
Sugar is very attractive.
There’s no nourishment in sugar, and you really need to have moral and human interaction that nourishes you or we lose this empathy towards one another and civilization becomes senseless. I hope that we’re going to be using our own personal strength as inner-directed people to deal with the future together.
Then last question on the sex thing. Where are we with that? It’s sort of anything goes, and yet not, you have Mike Pence and Mother. You know what I mean? It’s really fascinating. Will that never end for the United States of America?
Will that never end for the United ...
I know. We’re this puritanical society, where so many other cultures just get it. We are just flummoxed and every day ...
It seems like repetition over and over again. And a forward movement, by the way. It’s always more and more looser ...
Yes, that’s right.
Which is really interesting. I mean, they just come back every time.
I think that’s one thing we did learn in the ’90s, that human desire is as important as reason in determining people’s behavior patterns, and that sexuality is front and center in our behaviors, which we didn’t accept, really. I think part of that was AIDS in the ’80s, where you had to talk about what the consequences of sexuality were. You had to talk about it in your church, you had to talk about it in your classrooms, you had to talk about it at the dinner table. This was really a big change in the ’80s that led into the ’90s.
Yeah. All right. David, this is really interesting. Everyone should read the book. Now I feel terrible about the ’90s, I really do, although my career really started in the ’90s with the internet.
I do remember seeing the internet and thinking everything was going to change, which was interesting.
It really is.
Anyway, the new book is called “The Naughty Nineties: The Triumph of the American Libido.” It’s written by David Friend, who’s an editor of creative development at Vanity Fair. You should all read it, about the culture wars of the 1990s and how they’re pertinent to today. Thank you very much, David.
Thank you so much, Kara.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.