WASHINGTON, D.C. -- It is now becoming ever clearer that the last decade of the 20th century could go down in history as the Decade of Illusions. There was the tech bubble whose detumescence was predicted by some of the very same engineering geniuses who had created the technological marvels that it was based on, for instance, Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and a major force in the creation of the Internet. He predicted the bubble's burst almost to the day.
Another of the illusions of the 1990s was that with the fall of communism barbarism vanished. The world would be safe. Our military budget could be trimmed. All that was necessary to deal with those quaint Islamic zanies across the sea was an occasional cruise missile sent their way, preferably when our aggrieved president was about to appear before a grand jury or be impeached. There was also the illusion that a chief executive's lies were harmless and perhaps even a private matter.
Now some of the liars of the decade have been sentenced to long stretches in the calaboose. Their lies conduced to corporate collapse and the loss of millions to investors and to pension funds. This week with the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro from Major League Baseball, many of the baseball records racked up in the 1990s are suspected of being illusory. Quite probably many of them were the product of illegal steroid use. The baseball heroes of the 1990s simply lied about their performances. What other revelations will be coming from the Decade of Illusions?
Palmeiro flunked a drug test sometime in recent months, though he continued to thrill his Baltimore Orioles fans before his positive test for steroids was made public. On July 15, fans and teammates celebrated his 3,000th hit with gaudy fanfare. Major League Baseball took out newspaper ads congratulating him, though it is reported that league officials were aware he had tested positive for steroids. Palmeiro graciously accepted all the laudations. How could he do this while knowing that officials were wise to him?
In the 1990s, we called this "compartmentalizing." It was approved by journalists and public figures alike. President Bill Clinton executed his presidential tasks exuberantly day in and day out while retaining subpoenaed documents from prosecutors, coaching witnesses to deceive and lying brazenly to his staff and the public. He compartmentalized, and to this day, there are public figures who admire his sang-froid. They would agree with John Harris' assessment of him in Harris' recent encomium, "The Survivor," as being one of "the two most important political figures of their generation" -- the other being, who else, Hillary.
One of Clinton's most memorable statements that will ring down from the Decade of Illusions is: "I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." The Boy President said that glaring into the cameras on national television and pointing his finger for emphasis. Later he failed his drug test or rather his DNA test. Yet he is still arguing that the statement is somehow true.
Palmeiro is one of Clinton's finest students. Under oath before a Congressional Committee on March 17, he declared: "I have never used steroids. Period. I do not know how to say it more clearly than that. Never." He too glared and pointed his finger emphatically. Now that he is suspended after that failed test, he argues with Clintonian indefatigability: "I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period." The New York Times reports that the steroid he tested positive for is stanozolol. It is unimaginable that an adult would not know that he was taking it. Use of it in 1988 cost Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson his Olympic gold medal.
Tom Knott, the superb sports writer for The Washington Times, suspects that Palmeiro's hitting feats owe something to his teaming up with Jose Canseco in the Decade of Illusions. Knott further seems to suspect that many of the home-run marvels of the 1990s were fueled by steroids. Think of it -- a whole decade of baseball records thrown into a twilight of doubt because the rules were compartmentalized. Slowly but steadily, those who cast doubt on the marvels of that decade are being vindicated.