What the Year 2000 Wrought

What the Year 2000 Wrought

A conversation with Andrew Rice about his book The Year That Broke America, the chaotic politics of the aughts, and how that decade’s eccentric characters defined American life. 

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As someone born in the middle of the 1990s, my memories of the first years of the new millennium are foggy and fractured. I see plastic champagne glasses adorned with “2000” logos and remember ambient chatter about Y2K; adults talking about something or someone called “hanging chad”; and a group of my classmates and I sitting on the classroom floor, learning delicately that a city across the country had been attacked. These images are perhaps telling of the era, but the momentous shifts that transpired in America at the turn of the century—and the months just before and after it—have only come into full focus in recent years, with the benefit of distance, as a complex history we have to grapple with.

The 2000s, journalist Andrew Rice argues, was a curious era for politics, economics, and culture: one that both cleared a passageway for opportunism and set a precedent for nefarious enterprises. In particular, Florida in the year 2000 and the start of 2001, Rice believes, was a place and time that set the stage for our current moment: “Florida was an unlikely crucible; this place where the America of the present started to come into being.” Understanding how the cultural forces and political events of this moment connected with and moved past one another is the benefit of reading The Year That Broke America, Rice’s new book on the turn of the millennium.

To make history into a narrative, the journalist yoked together archival material, old reporting of his, and new, immersive research conducted over the past few years, which included flying a plane with the instructor who trained a 9/11 perpetrator. He also devotes pages to Elián González, a Cuban immigrant who became a political token; the Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore; and the dot-com bubble.

I spoke with Rice about the cult of early-aughts political personality, ironic coincidences, and the benefit of writing this book from a historical remove. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

—Alana Pockros

Alana Pockros: You examine characters like Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Hillary Clinton, and Jeff Bezos, who hold a significance now that they didn’t in the year 2000. There’s this irony about it that’s sort of funny. For example, you write: “In the year 2000, the possibility that Donald Trump might actually become president was so remote that it was safe to enjoy him entirely at the level of metaphor.” I’m curious to what extent you were thinking about this renewed significance when writing.

Andrew Rice: As I say in the acknowledgments, the book started off as journalism and ended up as history. A lot of these things were things I was covering and reading at the time. But the benefit of writing them as history is: Maybe you don’t know exactly how the story turns out, but you know more about the dimensions of the story and what turns out to be important or what turns out to be not important. A great example of that in the book is with the Kevin Ingram subplot—this character who was involved in a wild caper involving purported arms dealing, international intelligence organizations, and federal law enforcement. I didn’t quite know how I was going to fit him into the story until I realized that he had been at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank at the dawn of this era of mortgage securitization. In the moment when he was arrested originally, he was described as a Wall Street bond trader, but no one in that moment thought that there was any particular significance to the fact that he was trading mortgage-backed securities and that Deutsche Bank’s most prominent early customer was Donald Trump. These are the sort of things that only become interesting to the reader in retrospect. The reader’s awareness of how the story ends works to your benefit, because you can kind of nod at these sorts of things without necessarily having to spell them out.

AP: I learned for the first time while reading the book that Trump’s first bid for the presidency happened in 2000, when he failed to win the Reform Party ticket, and that his platform included universal health care.

AR: Part of the thing that was so remarkable about it was how little Trump had changed. He had no ideology then; I tend to think he has no ideology now, beyond the desire to enhance his own power and celebrity and sense of superiority. He also called Pat Buchanan a Hitler lover, and of course Buchanan proposed many of the same policies that Trump would go on to adopt wholesale. These are interesting historical ironies, but they also point to a larger truth, which is that, for Trump, politics has never been anything other than a marketing opportunity and an opportunity to display his incredible capacity to dominate everyone’s consciousness and the public conversation.

The difference between now and then, of course, is that prior to the advent of social media, he could safely be tuned out. I say that Trump didn’t really have a platform: He had to hire a ghostwriter to write that book for him [The Art of the Deal] and to come up with political positions. But he also didn’t have a figurative platform either; he didn’t have a social media platform. Perhaps the comforting parallel between 2000 and 2022 is that, once again, Trump doesn’t really have a platform. I don’t want to jinx it, but you can see now that he’s starting to shrink into more and more of a position of irrelevance.

AP: Regarding the spectacle of politics, I thought it was interesting that in the chapter where you talk about reality TV, you’re also talking about convention season and speechwriting. How do we square an interest in reality television with an interest in political gaffes?

AR: There was a prevalent cultural idea in the late 1990s and early 2000s especially that politics was basically no longer an ideological contest but rather character-driven. Part of it was a product of the Democratic Party’s move to the center during the Clinton administration and the Republican Party’s subsequent brief correction around 1998, where it decided, after being defeated in the midterms in the midst of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to try and run on revolutionary conversative rhetoric, but rather to find its own version of Clinton, which it found ironically in the person of George W. Bush. We now remember him as a wartime president who launched ill-fated or ill-conceived wars on the basis of faulty intelligence. But in the moment, in the year 2000, he was generally viewed as a kind of centrist, inoffensive, God-fearing fellow from Texas who owned a baseball team. In that moment it was safe to enjoy politics on the level of pure entertainment, and the parties went out of their way to stage their conventions as entertainment. You reference the chapter on the Democratic National Convention—I mean, that was held in Los Angeles, and portions of it were produced by Harvey Weinstein. It was all very much kind of geared towards the Clinton era. The West Wing had just started.

AP: Turning to the Bush/Gore debacle, it strikes me that voter suppression in Florida is an aspect of the 2000 election that is often overlooked in its retelling, including Jesse Jackson’s participation in fighting against that, which eventually came up against Gore’s own very different focus in Florida. Can you talk about your decision to give this story space in the book?

AR: In that moment, the allegations of voter suppression and the statistical evidence that Black votes were thrown out at a much higher rate than white votes—all this clear evidence of disenfranchisement, whether inadvertent or deliberately engineered—was sort of shunted to the side. There are a couple of reasons for that. I think one had to do with the political culture of the time among the elites in Washington. There was a sense that making allegations of racial voter suppression and aligning yourself with Jesse Jackson would in some way be discrediting or destabilizing. There was a universal derogatory phrase: “playing the race card.” Al Gore didn’t want to play the race card. The race card was what you played when you were desperate; when you had no other avenues or argument, you would resort to demagoguery. Gore didn’t want to—rightly or wrongly—be seen as somebody who was destabilizing the country and doing things that would make it difficult for the two parties and the nation to come together after the resolution of the election.

But there was another reason. It wasn’t just the Supreme Court’s decision; it was also the media’s decision. The Nation is excluded from this—it published some of the material I relied on in my writing. So some news organizations did make an effort to dig into this more, but it was considered to be a rearguard action by the Democratic Party to undermine the legitimacy of Bush, which had already been established by the Supreme Court decision. There was a subsequent investigation by the US Commission on Civil Rights, which is a federally appointed commission that came out with a pretty striking report that said one in seven Black votes in Florida were invalidated in 2000. But again, that report was kind of launched into the ether, and ultimately there was a societal, or at least political, consensus that it was time to move on. Then 9/11 happened, and by September 12, 2001, nobody from either party was really eager to have a conversation about whether George W. Bush was a legitimate president or not.

AP: There’s another detail you bring in once we’ve gotten to the portion of the book where Bush is elected. You write: “Over the next eight years…the world would dither, emissions would increase, and climate [change] would take on unstoppable momentum.” When you were writing, how much were you thinking about where we’d be had the election gone the other way, regarding climate or otherwise?

AR: Al Gore should have been president—I don’t think there’s any serious contention over that. So then the question becomes: What would an Al Gore presidency have looked like? Gore as a politician was an extraordinarily cautious incrementalist, and maybe not somebody who would’ve been likely to upend the applecart or have presided over a dramatic realignment of American environmental priorities. On the other hand, there’s a lot of evidence that Gore not only cared about the issue on a personal level, but also that he was prepared to spend political capital in order to achieve some change on environmental issues.

The best example of that comes from a book that Bob Shrum, Gore’s adviser, wrote, in which he tells a story about how, toward the end of the election, Gore really wanted to go to Michigan and talk about his environmental policies. He had reembraced the idea of phasing out the internal combustion engine, and his advisers—including one of his environmental advisers—had to basically get him on the phone and say, “Look, you cannot go to Detroit and call for the abolition of the internal combustion engine a month before the election. Michigan is a swing state, and if we lose it, you’re not going to be president or be able to do anything for the environment at all.”

There’s a good chance that Gore would’ve made progress on many of these issues. Even a “do no harm” policy would’ve had a positive effect. One of the first things that Bush did was tear up a lot of international agreements, even ones his father’s administration had put together. Bush’s first order of business was to promote oil and gas interests in Texas, and he carried that out very effectively. At the very least, we can say an Al Gore presidency wouldn’t have prioritized massively increasing American fuel consumption.

AP: I’d like to speak briefly about the media at the time. In the book, you frequently mention Tina Brown’s short-lived magazine Talk. Can you give me a sense of why it was a crucial part of the puzzle of the year 2000?

AR: In September 2001, Talk put Rudy Guliani on the cover. The headline was “The Mayor of America.” If you were a person in the media in New York in 1999 or 2000, Talk was sort of “Topic A” in conversation. That and Inside.com—those were the two big launches of the time period. Talk was founded by Tina Brown after she left The New Yorker, where she had been extraordinarily controversial and influential as a disrupting force there. She left for this new magazine she was going to start with Harvey Weinstein, and the idea was that it was going to cover the worlds of politics, fashion, business, entertainment: a general-interest magazine that reflected the fizzy, go-go atmosphere of the era. The first cover article was Hillary Clinton’s first big post-impeachment interview, in which she talked about why she decided to stay with Bill, laying the groundwork for her Senate race, which would occur in 2000.

Talking about things that have fallen down the memory hole: In order to do this research, I ended up going to the New York Public Library and pulling out giant, hardbound editions of Talk and also George, published by John F. Kennedy Jr. This was really the last prosperous era of glossy magazine journalism.

AP: Lastly, I want to ask about one of the most eccentric characters in the book, Chuck Harder, the radio host and Y2K doomer who built this tiny survivalist cabin in his backyard. How did he make his way into this?

AR: When I was in the course of writing the book proposal, I felt like one of the issues that I really needed to address in some form or fashion was the rise of Trumpist populism and conspiracy theory thinking, and I didn’t really know how I was going to do that. At one point I thought Pat Buchanan might be a much larger character in the book than he ended up being. I was on a train going to work—back when people did that—and I was listening to a podcast called Surviving Y2K. There was a brief clip of Harder talking about his Y2K conspiracy theories on this podcast, and they mentioned he was in Florida. And I thought, “Oh, this could be really interesting”—talk radio as a prototype for what the Internet would later become.

I discovered there wasn’t really much written about Chuck Harder at all, but I managed to track down one of his former producers, who put me in touch with his daughter. She said as an aside that she had audio tapes of his shows, and I said I’d love to have them. I went down to White Springs, Fla., and she gave me six or seven boxes of cassettes from 1999 and 2000, including December 31, 1999, which Harder predicted would be the apocalypse. I got a small Walkman and plugged it into the car stereo. I was listening to these talk radio shows as I was driving around in Florida, which was kind of an amazing way to listen to this stuff, because you could sort of be transported back to that time.

The thing that was amazing about the cassette tapes is that talk radio was such an important, powerful cultural force. It was enormous and consequential, and it’s all gone into the ether. If you want to find out what Rush Limbaugh was saying about something in 1999 or 2000, it’s pretty difficult to find that out. So that was what was really so exciting about finding those tapes: actually being able to reconstruct something that I thought was lost forever.

I think, in some ways, what is happening now is probably even more ephemeral; it will be hard to reconstruct for future historians, because so much of what happens on social media disappears. I think that writing a history of 2020 is going to turn out to be much harder than writing a history of 2000, because so much of what happens—a Substack, say—you hit “delete” when you finish reading it, and it’s gone forever.

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