The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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 scot-free.

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.

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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 Measures.

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 paparazzi 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 of 1997.

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. Anthony Lukas, 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 Andrew Cunanan, 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, Louise Woodward, 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, death-penalty 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 Herald.

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 Jesse Helms. 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. Joe Kennedy, 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, Ray Flynn 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 enemies.

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 Tony Blair. 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 Bill Gates 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 over owner Bob Kraft's meddling in the team's 1996 draft -- was leaving to coach the Jets; they responded by getting thrashed by the Packers in the Super Bowl. 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 Wilfredo Cordero's arrest 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 academic institution.

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 Southern Baptists' 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]