1990s: The Decade America Went Digital

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1990s: The Decade America Went Digital

The United States faced several serious challenges as it entered the 1990s. On the one hand, the continued collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the United States was now the lone superpower in the world. America soon found out what that meant when Iraq invaded Kuwait. President George Bush (1924–) sent in American troops to restore Kuwait and to challenge the armies of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–). Bush's victory in the Gulf War (1991) brought him high approval ratings at home, but not high enough to override the mounting economic problems the country was facing.

The American economy, which had seemed so healthy for much of the 1980s, had come under increasing strain late in the decade. This strain was due in part to the huge budget deficits created by the Reagan administration (1981–89). As the economy slipped into recession, President Bush was forced to take back a campaign pledge and raise taxes. In the presidential election of 1992, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton (1946–) hammered Bush on the economy. He had help from third-party candidate H. Ross Perot (1930–), a quirky millionaire who bought hours of television time to get out his message. When the election returns came in, Clinton won with just 43 percent of the vote.

Clinton's presidency was troubled from the outset. Republicans hated Clinton, and they used his slim margin of victory and the slight Democratic majority in Congress to challenge every program Clinton created. When the Republicans gained a majority in the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections, they brought the government to a near standstill. To make matters worse, the Clinton administration and Clinton himself had a knack for getting in trouble. There were small scandals over political nominees and White House travel expenditures—the "Nannygate" and "Travelgate" controversies, named after the famous Watergate scandal of the administration of President Richard Nixon (1913–1994).

Then the scandals got bigger and uglier. A special counsel was appointed to look into investments that the president and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947–), had made in Arkansas. This investigation, called the Whitewater investigation, was soon followed by charges that Clinton, when he was a governor, had sexually harassed a state employee named Paula Jones (1967–). Finally, in 1997, investigators led by Kenneth Starr (1946–) revealed that Clinton had had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky (1973–), and may have lied about it under oath. These charges led the House to pass articles of impeachment against the president (to charge the president with misconduct in office) late in 1998. The Senate, however, declined to try the president, and the impeachment scandal died. These endless scandals, however, had taken their toll on the Clinton presidency.

Despite the taint of scandal, America thrived under the Clinton administration. The economy picked up dramatically by the mid-1990s and stayed strong through the end of the decade. Driving the economy was the strong performance of high-technology firms, led by companies known as "dot-coms." The dotcom companies took their name from the domain names that many companies adopted for use on the recently invented World Wide Web. Dot-coms such as Amazon.com, E-Bay, America Online, and Pets.com reinvented the way that many businesses worked. Buying and selling goods over the Internet, and allowing workers more freedom and creativity than they had ever enjoyed before, these companies led the way in what was known as the "New Economy." Biotechnology also boomed, as companies used advanced scientific techniques to improve crop yields, make genetically engineered foods, invent new drugs, and introduce a variety of other innovations.

The strong performance of the "New Economy" fueled a boom in all the major stock markets. Millions of Americans who had never invested before now invested money in the stock market, either directly or through mutual funds. Overnight, many Americans got wealthy from small companies that hit it big. A new kind of stock trader called a "day trader" became a symbolic figure of how to benefit from the overheated stock market.

Along with the economy, popular culture flourished. Movie-makers poured millions of dollars into making films that were filled with dramatic special effects. Jurassic Park (1993) and Titanic (1997) are two examples of such films. Network television produced a good number of worthwhile shows, including one of the most loved situation comedies (sitcoms) in TV history in Seinfeld and one of the most creative sitcoms in The Simpsons. Cable TV offered a growing number of Americans more variety than ever before in home entertainment. Musically, Americans also had many styles from which to choose, from a revived country music to alternative rock to rap.

In sports, America watched some of the greatest athletic performances of all time from the likes of basketball's Michael Jordan (1963–), golf's Tiger Woods (1975–), and baseball's Mark McGwire (1963–). McGwire and fellow National League slugger Sammy Sosa (1968–) battled each other in 1998 for the home run race as they chased the record of Roger Maris (1934–1985) for most home runs in a season; McGwire won out with 70 home runs (a record that was eclipsed only three years later by Barry Bonds [1964–]). Americans also enjoyed the accomplishments of a range of female athletes from soccer star Mia Hamm (1972–) to tennis sisters Venus Williams (1980–) and Serena Williams (1981–).

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1990s: The Decade America Went Digital