We lucked out again when a talented Executive Producer, Lewis Bogach, called from American Movie Classics. He asked us if we’d be interested in producing a documentary on the Hollywood Blacklist, when hundreds of top professionals in the movie business were fired for refusing to cooperate with a Senate Committee trying to root Communists and progressives out of every thought making institution in America. Many of the participants were still alive, although it took some convincing to get those who cooperated with the Senate committee to appear.
I learned producing the Normandy show that you can tell the truth about history in a way you cannot tell the truth about contemporary events. No one would have allowed me to portray the Hitler Jugend Division at all sympathetically until at least a half-century had passed. The same was true of the blacklisted Hollywood professionals.
Alec Baldwin hosted the show and Morgan Freeman, Rob Reiner, and Martin Sheen read letters and excerpts from some of the blacklisted. It was broadcast on American Movie Classics on February 27, 1996 and won the 1996 Rockie Award for Best Arts Documentary at the Banff Television Festival and in 1996 the first prime time Emmy Presidential Award.
Later in the year, I directed and wrote an hour special for American Movie Classics about how Hollywood has viewed American politics from the silent films of the 1920s to the election of 1996. D.C. Follies was broadcast in October.
In late 1995, Hodding and I produced an hour special for public television on the future of work. It was a timid show emphasizing the jobs to come with the Internet boom, but we notable ignored industrial workers. Jobs: Not What They Used to Be, was broadcast on public television in the spring of 1996.
Like many Americans, I had become politically inactive, almost uninterested during the Eighties and Nineties. Nine years of Reagan’s setbacks and the overwhelming victory of his vice president, George H. W.Bush, over Michael Dukakis kept us staggering down the same road. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court in September and invaded Panama in December to overthrow his former CIA operative, Manuel Noriega. According to surveys, 80% of the American people cheered the invasion and Bush’s approval ratings soared.
There was a moment of enormous hope that spread for a short time throughout the world. It was largely the responsibility of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who took control of the Soviet Union in 1985 and announced a policy a glasnost (openness) a year later. It was a critical time for the Soviet Union. Satellite states were asking for more independence from Moscow. The arms race was eating their economy. Then in April of 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor failed. Handling the crisis cost the Soviet government the equivalent of $18 billion dollars, virtually bankrupting the government according to Gorbachev.
By 1989 the combination of Glasnost and Soviet weakness had encouraged civil resistance in the client states of Eastern Europe. As Poland and Czechoslovakia allowed increasing numbers of East Germans to flee to the West, East Germans began to demand freedom of travel. East German officials made some concessions. That led to thousands trying to get through checkpoints in the wall. Guards were overwhelmed. No East German official would authorize the use of force. Guards disappeared and the wall began to come down.
A few weeks later, on December 2nd and 3rd in Malta, President Bush and Gorbachev met to declare the end of the Cold War. No formal agreements were signed, but when Gorbachev was asked about nuclear war, he answered, “I assured the President of the United States that the Soviet Union would never start a hot war against the United States of America. And we would like our relations to develop in such a way that they would open greater possibilities for cooperation…. This is just the beginning. We are just at the very beginning of our road, long road to a long-lasting, peaceful period.” And so we all hoped.
It seemed that the end of the Cold War, a primary cause of conflict, could usher in a time of reconciliation when the world could start cooperating to solve problems. I find that hope so naïve in 2017 that it’s a difficult sentence to include. But German reunification in October of 1990 seemed like a propitious start.
Unfortunately, opponents of glasnost launched a coup against Gorbachev. The coup failed, but it weakened him. The Soviet Union dissolved in December of 1991. With the help of American neoliberals, notably Larry Summers and the IMF, the new Russia and its satellite countries abandoned central planning and adopted an extreme version of neoliberal capitalism.
Corrupt, haphazard privatization turned state enterprises over to politically connected people who quickly emerged as oligarchs with immense fortunes and the power that goes with them. Many of the oligarchs invested their money abroad, leading to a huge flight of capital. The result was disastrous, with real GDP falling by more than 40% by 1999. Hyperinflation wiped out personal savings. Crime soared. With no safety net, poverty grew at an alarming rate.
Bush had been preoccupied with events in the Middle East for some time. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in a dispute over an oil field, Bush led a coalition to push Iraq out. Early on the morning of January 17, 1991, allied forces launched the first attack, which included more than 4,000 bombing runs by coalition aircraft. This pace continued for the next four weeks until a ground invasion was launched in February. The graphic images of the bombing and battle, broadcast night after night, made the war much like a video game and Americans ate it up. We admire presidents who start wars and Bush’s approval rating soared.
His Iraq victory didn’t help him a year later in his struggle with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot for a second term. Unable to shrink the huge deficit he inherited from Ronald Reagan, Bush reneged on his 1988 campaign promise of “no new taxes.” The economy was in trouble. Unemployment was at its highest since 1984. According to the 1992 Census Report 14.2% of all Americans lived in poverty.
The phrase that Clinton campaign strategist James Carville coined said it all: “The economy stupid.”