WASHINGTON. — Millions of Americans who never signed on for the 1980s said ''good riddance'' when the decade was gone. The Nineties would be different.
What different meant depended on the dreamer. To some, it meant a revival of public-spiritedness instead of me-first greed. To others, it meant an America kinder and gentler to its own, at home. And to others, it meant old-fashioned virtues and values, serious study of serious matters, instead of the costly glitz of the yuppie years.
Time magazine focused this week on the trend back to the simple life, and featured a pair of worn high-top boots on its cover. Ken Burns' Civil War was the television sensation of 1990. We applaud the lucky citizen who bought an antique painting for $4 at a Pennsylvania flea market and found a mint copy of the Declaration of Independence behind it, and is auctioning it for perhaps $1 million. That's the kind of bid that soup-label art was drawing during the boom-boom decade.
But some of the improvements of the Eighties have not gone away. One of the islands where they hold out is Manhattan. Another is the newspaper business.
The decade past saw hyper-growth of the back of newspapers, the soft-news or no-news sections about TV celebrities, home decoration, rock stars, movies, recipes to get fat and diets to get thin. This was and is good business: Those sections were new places to pack ads, and attracted free-spending yuppies theoretically uninterested in the wars and politics chronicled up front.
Such wholesale diversion of newsprint to the lighter life was made respectable nationwide when the New York Times, traditionally the sober, gray newspaper of record, started daily sections devoted to the arts of consumption.
Those who thought that with the turn of the decade, the Times might lead a reordering of priorities are still waiting. Fifteen months into the Nineties, the back of the paper still reads as if His Majesty Ronald I had just arrived in town.
This diatribe is provoked by a piece in yesterday's Home section of the Times headlined ''Table-Top Verities Are Toppling, It Seems.'' It occupies 70 column inches of valuable space, including three photographs. On the same day, the Page 1 story on a major discovery about liver cancer got 31 inches, proving that the Times still makes room for much of the news that's fit to print.
Conceivably, the piece on table-top styles was a put-on. I would be sure if it didn't use up space that could have been sold for $XX thousand. Actually, it masquerades as an essay on the changing trends of the new decade. It goes like this: Side tables and coffee tables ''are being cleared of 'all those rinky-dink things we had in the 80s that eventually got broken.' '' This information is from Vicente Wolf, ''one of many New York designers who are minimizing headlong into the 1990s.''
Another designer, William Diamond, says he and his partner, Tony Baratta, ''might put a single handsome box or piece of folk art on the surface.'' But for a Florida client, they are sending hardly anything except a giant chemical beaker as a vase for cut flowers. ''It's right out of the '70s, but now it's classic,'' says William.
Reporter Sally Clark's piece itself is right out of the '80s, a classic suitable for framing beside the terminal atrocities of Andy Warhol, to give later centuries some sense of what mattered to us. Make that what mattered in Manhattan; Ms. Clark quotes 11 more designers, most of them on the island.
Apparently these gentlemen and ladies actually get paid for tTC telling other people what to put on their side tables. They get quoted in New York's leading newspaper for doing so. Some get their pictures in the paper: Here is Scott Bromley, who ''has always had a penchant for minimalism. He arranged building blocks, a bud vase and a cookie jar on a table in his loft.'' Here beside him is Dennis Rolland, whose ''style is ripe English country, but his table tops are becoming leaner.''
''The functional and personal are winning out over the decorative and useless,'' Ms. Clark tells us. ''Take obelisks. There was a time -- a year ago, to be precise -- when these sculptural objects were having their moment . . . But already the obelisk seems finished. 'It's kind of a cliche,' said Stephen Sills. He stopped doing obelisks the minute everyone else started doing them.''
I pause here to reconsider what I have written, and realize that of course the whole Times exercise is a joke, that I have been had again by Manhattan sophisticates. Meanwhile the news wire says that last month, the number of Americans claiming unemployment benefits was at its highest point since the recession of 1982.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.