It Was a Very Good Year

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At an academic conference a few years ago, the speaker onstage asked, rhetorically, "What was the best year?" Irving Kristol, grand vizier of neoconservatives, shouted from the audience without hesitation: "1946!"

Why '46? It is not hard to guess that in 1946, Kristol was young; the U.S. had just emerged triumphant from a terrible war; the Cold War had not yet set in, and — I'm guessing — perhaps much about the America of 1946 seemed more congenial to Kristol than much about the America of the Clinton '90s.

It's only the start of March, but not too early to ask how we are doing with 2001 as a potential Best Year. Layoffs are mounting, the market's skittish and the weather's been terrible. Bush has been getting good early reviews for charm. We shall see.

Bear in mind that Best Year is not a political judgment; it is not won or lost on the stock market. Nor is it necessarily determined by who's in the White House.

Best Year has something to do with atmosphere, ambient glow, and with the time of your life when you felt most alive and at home in the world. It was the moment the world seemed thoroughly wonderful. Best Year may seem an illogical choice. Brits may think fondly of the war years, even of the Blitz.

As you get older, you've got more years to choose from. I asked some college students the other day to tell me their first vivid public memory — the first event that had intruded upon their private and childish worlds. They named the explosion of the Challenger.

The America I grew up in is extinct. I was raised in the Atlantis of the '50s, in the time before time, in a flickering, black-and-white Pleistocene. A volcano erupted and destroyed the Eisenhower era. It lies under the ocean now.

I don't altogether miss it. I don't think I would nominate a year from the '50s. Nor would I give the honor to one from the gaudy, dysfunctional, hero-slaying '60s. They were the volcano. My personal worst year was 1968, when my younger brother and my best friend died, and America flew off the tracks. I don't miss 1968.

But what was a wonderful year? I'm not sure. Was it one from the '90s? From the Reagan '80s, maybe — the Gipper twinkling amid bunting and fireworks? Surely you are not going to speak up for something from the lame '70s? It is possible. Mary Tyler Moore was adorable.

Gore Vidal, in his lovely essay called "Some Memories of the Glorious Bird" — actually a review of Tennessee Williams' memoirs — wrote with immense affection of 1948. He remembered the year as a golden age, best savored in Rome or New York City. Best Year tends to be the year when you were young and strong, and had just made the giddy discovery that you could commit great follies and survive them — the discovery that you were, for practical purposes and for the indefinite future, immortal.

Nineteen forty-eight, like 1968, was an annus mirabilis. Was 2000 an annus mirabilis? No. It should have been, but it lacked the energy to live up to its millennial expectations.

Two thousand one? Can't say. Best Year is a retrospective exercise. A good year must have time to marinate in the memory and to establish its place in the comparative scheme of years. We'll know more later.