1997: The Year of Drastic Measures
This was not a year for wimps. It was a year to storm the embassy, to flog the
infidels, to condemn the nanny to life in prison -- and then to let her off
1997 in Review: Styles by Tom Scocca
The definitive words of 1997, it turned out, were spoken by a man three years
dead: Richard Milhous Nixon, who made a strange, grim curtain call in October
with the release of a new round of his secret tapes. In the recordings, the
36th president sounds like a man for the current age. "I'll sit on those
papers, if I have to burn them, I'll burn every goddamned paper in this house,"
he ranted on May 10, 1973, as Senate investigators closed in. "So we'll have a
constitutional crisis. If we do, it'll be a goddamn ding-dong battle and we might,
if we lose, I'll burn the papers."
Here was someone who perfectly understood the spirit of 1997. This was not a
year for niggling over ethics or syntax; this was the year for a good goddamn
ding-dong battle. Historian Stanley Kutler's transcripts find Nixon in full
cornered-rat mode, ready and eager to obstruct justice, burglarize, firebomb
--whatever it took to get the job done. He knew: sometimes, you have to let it
all hang out.
the year in
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This was the year for biting somebody, battering somebody, sodomizing somebody
with a toilet plunger. It was a year for massacres and mass suicide, for
baby-killing and rough justice. It was not a time for restraint, half-stepping,
or measured response. It was a year for going, in the parlance of the year's
most surprising hit movie, the full monty. In short, it was the Year of Drastic
The things that make the news have always been extreme, or picturesque, or
violent. But what set the sensational events of 1997 apart was that, in
instance after instance, somebody made the decision to choose the proverbial
sledgehammer over the flyswatter. Bobbi McCaughey decided not to let her
fertility-drug overstimulation pass before trying to make babies. Mike Tyson
decided that the Marquis of Queensbury rules weren't giving him a good enough
chance to beat Evander Holyfield. Dodi al-Fayed decided to elude the
at all costs, even if it meant rousting an extra driver out of drunken slumber
so the regular one could serve as a decoy. That was the sort of thing that won
you a place -- bloated, disgraced, or mangled as you might be -- in the annals
Grotesquerie succeeded grotesquerie at such a pace that it seemed every month
saw a new Story of the Year anointed. But in retrospect, for sheer 1997-ness,
it was tough to beat -- no, not Princess Diana, already -- but the
Heaven's Gate suicide
in March. A commune of computer programmers, buzzheaded and
gender-neutralized -- to the point, in some cases, of actually being neutered
-- made the undeniably drastic decision, inspired by the passing comet
Hale-Bopp, to forsake their successful Web-page-design business to seek the
spiritual Level Above Human. Getting to said Level may or may not have involved
catching a ride on a spaceship behind the comet (the group's otherwise
meticulous farewell messages were a bit fuzzy on that point), but it definitely
entailed getting past the Level of Human, which in turn entailed putting on
brand-new Nikes, eating barbiturate-laced applesauce, and putting plastic bags
over their heads so that all 68 of their "flesh containers" expired.
At least the comet-chasers could give a reason. Most of the year's other
prominent suicides left the world guessing.
the author of the
seminal Boston busing-era history Common Ground, strangled himself on
the eve of the release of his newest opus. Writer Judith Gaines of the
Globe tried to wring a little drama out of his passing by floating the
notion that she'd driven him to his death by asking a too-incisive question
about the book's theoretical underpinnings, while less self-aggrandizing
observers noted simply that behind Lukas's legendarily methodical work was an
obsessive and unhappy mind, one inclined to overreaction.
Writer Michael Dorris, too, did himself in for stubbornly unclear causes. The
press swarmed to his corpse, drawn by rumors of child-abuse accusations, and
proceeded to expose Dorris to the precise humiliation he'd apparently been
trying to avoid. There was less frenzy about the passing of INXS singer Michael
Hutchence, found swinging from his belt in a hotel room. After some nasty
speculation about pills on the scene and the possibility he was engaged in what
the papers called "a bondage sex act," the word came that the pills were Prozac
and he'd been emotionally ravaged by Bob Geldof's resistance to having Mrs. Bob
Geldof become Mrs. Hutchence.
In New York, meanwhile, a teenager despondent over World Series gambling debts
got the cops to kill him by brandishing a toy gun at them. And in Southie this
year, six teens took their own lives, for no greater reason than the infinitely
sad dramatics and pain of youth.
Other people spent the year doing drastic things to the people around them.
This summer was shadowed by the exploits of
who went on a
torture-and-killing spree so singular as to throw a wrench into the FBI's
killer-profiling system -- freely switching from gun to claw hammer and back
again, and working through victims ranging from personal acquaintances to
random strangers to designer Gianni Versace before, his inspiration exhausted,
he holed up in a houseboat and blew his own brains out.
There was speculation, since discredited, that Cunanan had been set off by
discovering he was HIV-positive. That motive, it turned out, may have applied
instead to Nushawn Williams,
who traded drugs for sex with small-town teenage
girls up and down the Hudson River Valley and may have infected dozens, some as
young as 13, with HIV.
More conventional small-town social dynamics went astray in Pearl,
Mississippi, where Luke Woodham, one of a set of outcast teens calling
themselves "the Kroth," knifed his mother and then gunned down his
ex-girlfriend and eight other students, killing two, because, he wrote, "people
like me are mistreated every day." Two months later, in West Paducah, Kentucky,
another maladjusted teen, who'd told schoolmates "something big" was going to
happen, opened fire on a before-school prayer meeting, killing three. For
godless high-school sensationalism, though, both incidents paled before the
casually drastic events at the Lacey Township, New Jersey, senior prom, where
Melissa Drexler allegedly excused herself from her date, went to the bathroom,
gave birth, cut the umbilical cord on the jagged edge of a toilet-paper
dispenser, choked the baby, and dumped the whole mess in the trash.
Out in the grown-up world, blood flowed freely, too. Two high-profile bombings
in Atlanta, at an abortion clinic and a gay club, wounded eight and sparked
speculation about right-wing conspirators trying to make a statement on behalf
of traditional values. In the always drastic Middle East, suicide bombers at
the Ben Yehuda promenade in Jerusalem killed four bystanders, apparently to
protest Israeli occupation of the West Bank (the Mossad tried to return the
favor by attempting a baroquely designed nerve-poison assassination of a Hamas
leader, which provoked a diplomatic incident when it went awry). At Luxor, in
Egypt, a band of fundamentalists gunned down 58 tourists and four guards; in
Lakshmanpur, India, an upper-caste mob slaughtered five dozen low-caste
villagers to keep them in their place.
Prominent Boston-area killings were smaller in scale, but no less gruesome.
Charles Jaynes and Salvatore Sicari allegedly abducted and murdered 10-year-old
Jeffrey Curley for sheer gratification, then molested his body, put it in a
cement-filled 50-gallon Rubbermaid container, and dumped it in the Great Works
River. Edward Donahue was accused of beating his wife Elaine's head in, then
hiding her body in the basement for a month before buying a Rubbermaid of his
own. Air National Guard Technical Sergeant Peter Contos of Lowell, police say,
resolved the strain of keeping two families by strangling his secret mistress
and their two young sons, then hiding the children's bodies in his locker at
Otis Air Force Base.
And, of course, nine-month-old Matthew Eappen got so fussy, a jury concluded,
that his au pair,
shook him to death. A high-stakes gamble by
the defense team failed to pressure the jurors into acquittal; the jury instead
found Woodward guilty of murder, requiring a life sentence. Daunted by the
severity of the result (and
the hysteria of Woodward's loyal public),
Judge Hiller Zobel then took the particularly drastic step of essentially rejecting
the jury's decision and setting Woodward free.
Zobel's interpretive approach to justice was just one example of the way the
forces of law and order took extreme measures of their own this year. After an
18-week hostage standoff with Tupac Amaru rebels at the Japanese embassy in
Lima, the Peruvian government abruptly ended negotiations and stormed the
compound, gunning down all the hostage takers -- reportedly as they played
soccer, unarmed -- and one captive for good measure. Within weeks, a Japanese
company had turned the event into a video game.
In New York, where police empowerment was credited with lowering the city's
crime rate, cops picked up a Haitian immigrant named
Abner Louima on
drunk-and-disorderly charges, took him back to the station house, and allegedly
beat and raped him with a toilet plunger. Also in New York, a US Marshal leaped
from a car and shot a teenage pedestrian, mistaking the glint of a Three
Musketeers wrapper for a gun.
Still, people wanted more zealous law enforcement. Massachusetts residents
decided, in the wake of the Curley case, to push for the state to restore the
ultimate punishment. With the Curley family leading the lobbying,
bills passed the House and Senate, only to founder when the House deadlocked on
the final version of the bill -- after Representative John Slattery of Peabody
took the dramatic step of reversing his position, which won him abuse and
contempt from the activists, the public, and, of course, the Boston
The biggest political story in Massachusetts, though, came when Bill Weld
decided to abandon the governorship to accept a Clinton administration
nomination to be ambassador to Mexico. Weld's rare display of commitment proved
fruitless, however, as he ran afoul of the even more committed
Still bearing a grudge over Weld's choice to distance himself from Helms's wing
of the Republican Party, the senior senator from North Carolina used his
chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to single-handedly deny
Weld a hearing on his appointment. In a particularly theatrical bit of public
humiliation for Weld, Helms even went so far as to convene a meeting at which
the ex-governor and his backers, though present, were forbidden to speak.
It may be that Weld was counting on the administration to throw its clout
behind him. But the Clinton White House was as out of tune with 1997 as it has
been with every other year. Feckless and paranoid, it spent the year not
fighting all-out for its goals, but writhing in the noose of ever-escalating
campaign-finance investigations. Even when maverick congressional Republicans
took a drastic stab at overthrowing Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House, the
administration never stopped cowering.
Weld's departure from Beacon Hill set the stage for still more high drama.
the early front-runner to be the next governor, found himself in an
unprecedented position for a Kennedy: being whacked by the press. His ex-wife,
Sheila Rauch Kennedy, insisting all the way that she loved him and wanted the
best for him, went on a crusade to publicize the shady details of their
annulment (though the official cause of action, that Joe Kennedy "lacked due
discretion," seemed pretty much airtight). Then his brother Michael got in
trouble for having an affair with -- or molesting, depending on when it
actually started -- a teenage baby sitter. With his last name suddenly a burden
instead of an asset, Joe concluded his rapid downfall by turning his back on a
$1.8 million war chest and
dropping out of the race.
Then, just as the press was feeling its oats after eliminating Joe,
sent up a trial balloon. The Globe responded, in direct contravention of
its previous Raybo policy, by running a huge front-page story painting Flynn,
in unusually pointed and vivid terms, as an out-of-control drunk.
But neither Flynn nor Kennedy saw his stock fall as far as some leaders'.
Mobutu Sese Seko, the leopard-skin-hatted tyrant of Zaire, saw his dictatorship
fall utterly. Backed by Rwandan and Ugandan troops, rebel leader Laurent Kabila
marched into Kinshasa and declared that even the name of Mobutu's country was
no more: Zaire was henceforth the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not
everything changed, however; even as Mobutu fled to France (where he expired
soon after), Kabila was blocking UN human-rights investigations in his country,
leading to accusations that he'd picked up Mobutu's habit of massacring his
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the Taliban militia followed its military gains
with the strict imposition of its ferocious version of Islamic law. For
Afghanis, the price of their first unified government in 20 years turned out to
be the end of education for women, mandatory beard-growing for men, and a ban
on any art that represents the human figure. For noncompliance with the rules,
they faced flogging -- or, for adulterers, death by stoning.
A less bloody changeover, but still a drastically decisive one, came in
Britain, where a spongy Conservative government was annihilated by the
Clintonish, touchy-feely Labour Party of
Given two similar options,
the British electorate nonetheless chose violently: John Major's Tories
suffered their worst defeat in more than 150 years, losing 158 seats in
Parliament -- almost a quarter of the House of Commons.
The dawning of the Blair era saw the British people embracing American-style
lowest-common-denominator public culture. This set the stage, in turn, for the
fervid and Elton John-intensive mourning over the death of Princess Diana -- a
scene which ironically reflected the very excess of celebrity worship that
makes photographers chase cars at high speed. As the royals bent protocol to
suit their muttering subjects, it was clear that something intrinsic to
monarchy had crumbled.
The Empire also took a blow with the transfer of power in Hong Kong, where
Great Britain ceded sovereignty back to China as its 99-year lease expired.
China's "one country, two systems" policy for incorporating Hong Kong underwent
a quick and marked revision, as the Chinese government settled in by dissolving
the Hong Kong parliament.
In other superpower news, Microsoft's bid for world dominance was bolstered by
the announcement -- delivered by
on a giant, Big Brother-esque video
screen -- that it was buying a $150 million share of Apple, abruptly ending the
rivalry that had defined people's attitudes toward personal computers. Even
that was small potatoes, though, next to the $55 billion bailout of the South
Korean economy that international banking organizations, along with the US and
its partners, offered after a series of Asian financial crises shook markets
worldwide. The US was drawn into the international-finance action when the Dow
fell 550 points in a single day, the greatest point drop ever; stirred up,
investors embarked the next day on the heaviest trading of all time -- 1.2
billion shares, which produced a record 337-point uptick.
It was, for once, as lively a year for labor as it was for business. In
August, the Teamsters Union went on a good old-fashioned strike against UPS,
complete with rioting at the Somerville package depot. The Teamsters won, but
soon investigators reported that the union president, Ron Carey, had been
elected under sufficiently suspicious circumstances that the election would be
voided, and that he would be barred from running again. The Carey faction was
bolstered, however, by the news that his opponent, James Hoffa, was likely to
be barred from the new election, too.
Unorthodox competitive tactics were by no means limited to the Teamsters. In
June, Mike Tyson found himself on the receiving end of a whipping from Evander
Holyfield; bleeding from what he claimed was a head-butt, he opted to even
matters up by biting a chunk out of Holyfield's right ear. Then, for good
measure, he bit the left one, too, effectively ending not only the fight, but
his boxing career, as the sport's officials opted to ban him for life.
Severe punishment was a recurring theme in the NBA, as well. In May, the
course of a Knicks-Heat playoff series was reversed when P.J. Brown of the Heat
attacked the Knicks' Charlie Ward. When four other Knicks wandered off the
bench for a look, they were all hit with one-game suspensions (and thus
depleted, the Knicks blew a 3-2 series lead). Then, over the summer, Rookie of
the Year Allen Iverson was caught riding in a speeding car with a handgun and a
bag of marijuana. For that, he was suspended one game at the start of the
season. To show it wouldn't brook lawlessness among its young players, the
league fined the Minnesota Timberwolves' players and administration a total of
$37,500 because the team's shorts were too baggy. Despite the new emphasis on
order, the NBA next made headlines when Latrell Sprewell of the Golden State
Warriors expressed his desire to be traded by throttling, then punching, his
coach, for which he was banned for one year, a league record.
Here in Boston, the Celtics' offenses were committed on the court, as they
concluded a worst-ever 15-67 season. In response, the team purged the front
office and offered Kentucky coach Rick Pitino a record $70 million deal to take
over; Pitino accepted the job and immediately got rid of 9 out of 14 players,
leaving the Celts the youngest and least experienced team in the league.
Turmoil wasn't reserved for bad teams, either. The Patriots, fresh from their
AFC championship, were rocked by the news that Bill Parcells -- still in a snit
meddling in the team's 1996 draft -- was leaving to
coach the Jets; they responded by getting thrashed by the Packers in the
His momentum wrecked, Kraft tried to get a stadium deal by threatening to
move the team to Providence, but the negotiations fell through, and
Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran
took to mocking him openly.
Crime, shame, and drama were all part of the year for the
Red Sox, who put in
another mediocre season -- punctuated by outfielder
for wife-beating and by the departed Roger Clemens's showing up Sox management,
winning not only the American League Cy Young Award but the pitching triple
crown for the Toronto Blue Jays. Finally, in a desperate (and successful) bid
to be taken seriously, the team closed out the year by acquiring 26-year-old
National League Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez and signing him to a
record-shattering six-year, $75 million contract extension.
It was recognition by the Sox that baseball had become a game of mad
financial brinkmanship. The Chicago White Sox built a gigantic payroll,
starring Albert Belle at $11 million a year -- then, three-and-a-half games out
of first place in midseason, decided their investment wasn't working and
started dumping their best players. The Florida Marlins outspent everyone, won
the World Series -- and then dumped all their players, too.
And the disillusioned sports fan could find little comfort in college
athletics: in these parts, the two biggest stories were that the UMass men's
basketball team, thanks to Marcus Camby's taste for agent-provided cash and
hookers, had to retroactively forfeit its entire 35-2 1996 season; and that BU
killed its football program in a cynically drastic bid to seem like a serious
In the end, it was hard to tell whether anyone was putting on a show for the
sake of principle, or putting on a principle for the sake of show. It was a
year for grand public pronouncements of morality -- the
attempt to boycott Disney over the liminal gay content of Ellen --
clothing the cheap thrills of a good scrap. But while everybody seemed
convinced they were doing the right thing, behind every sensation and every
photo opportunity lurked the feral, Nixonian sense of damning the consequences.
Even the year's heartwarming coda, the birth of the McCaughey septuplets, had a
disturbing air about it: the "miracle" birth was the product not of divine
will, but of the reckless use of reproductive technology combined with
religious fervor. Everybody had a nice time reading about the babies. Next
year, somebody's going to have to change the diapers.
Tom Scocca can be reached at tscocca[a]phx.com.