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A Loss of Innocence
I felt everyone else wanted to be in our world. We were the last generation to be cooler than our kids.
There’s a big “what if” over the Sixties. . . .Who knows what would have happened if King and Kennedy were alive?
In 1968 America was deeply divided by a war in Southeast Asia and it was preparing to vote in a presidential election in which the choices were starkly different. The country was in the midst of a cultural upheaval unlike anything experienced since the Roaring Twenties. Everyone wondered whether America could regain its balance.
Forty years later, another war, this one in the Middle East, was deeply dividing the United States. Republican and Democratic candidates for president were laying out starkly different scenarios for the country’s future. The place of America in the world was hotly debated. The popular culture was again an issue.
The eve of 2008 was not exactly the Sixties all over again, but we still have a lot to learn from that memorable, stimulating, dangerous, and maddening time in American life forty years ago.
I arrived in Los Angeles to join NBC News in 1966, and by then, Charles Dickens’s opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities had never seemed so prophetic. Were these the best or the worst of times? I wish I could say I felt the tremors of seismic change beginning and spreading out across the political and cultural landscape, but I was mostly trying to find my way. I was a twenty-six-year-old pilgrim from the prairie heartland, raised with the sensibilities of a Fifties working-class family. I was the father of a toddler with another child on the way.
I fit the prototype of the typical young white male of the time. I had been a crew-cut apostle of the Boy Scouts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, attending Sunday school and church, drinking too much beer in college but never smoking dope; marijuana in the Fifties and early Sixties was the stuff of jazz musicians and hoodlums in faraway places.
Before I married the love of my life, my high school classmate Meredith, we had never spent a night together. In those days, parked cars and curfews were the defining limits of courtship.
We were married in 1962, when Meredith was twenty-one and I was twenty-two, in a traditional Episcopal church wedding with a reception at our hometown country club. We left the next day with all our worldly possessions, including the five table cigarette lighters we had received as wedding presents, in the backseat of the no-frills Chevrolet compact car her father had given us as a wedding present.
We were eager to see a wider world, but only one step at a time. California was still four years away. Our first stop was Omaha, Nebraska, which then was an unimaginative and conservative midsize city a half day’s drive down the Missouri River from our hometown. We could barely afford ninety dollars a month to rent a furnished apartment, but when we went looking, in the stifling heat of a Great Plains August, I was dressed in a jacket and tie, and Meredith was wearing part of her honeymoon trousseau, including a girdle and hose. Five years later, I rarely wore a tie except on television, and Meredith was freed not only of girdles but also of hose and brassieres on California weekends.
In 1962, I had an entry-level reporter’s job at an Omaha television station. I had bargained to get a salary of one hundred dollars a week, because I didn’t feel I could tell Meredith’s doctor father I was making less. Meredith, who had a superior college record, couldn’t find any work because, as one personnel director after another told her, “You’re a young bride. If we hire you, you’ll just get pregnant before long and want maternity leave.”
In retrospect, the political and cultural climate in the early Sixties seems both a time of innocence and also like a sultry, still summer day in the Midwest: an unsettling calm before a ferocious storm over Vietnam, which was not yet an American war. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was confronting racism in the South and getting a good deal of exposure on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the two primary network newscasts, each just fifteen minutes long.
In the fall of 1963, first CBS and then, shortly after, NBC expanded those signature news broadcasts to a half hour. As a sign of the importance of the expansion, Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley were granted lengthy exclusive interviews with President Kennedy. ABC wouldn’t be a player in the news major leagues until the 1970s, when Roone Arledge brought to ABC News the energy and programming approach he had applied to ABC Sports. Kennedy, America’s first truly telegenic president, was a master of the medium, fully appreciating its power to reach into the living rooms of America from sea to shining sea.
During our time in Omaha, John F. Kennedy was not a local favorite. The city’s deeply conservative culture remained immune to Kennedy’s charms and to his arguments for social changes, such as civil rights and the introduction of government-subsidized medical care for the elderly. I’m sure many of my conservative friends at the time thought I was a card short of being a member of the Communist Party because I regularly championed the need for enforced racial equality and Medicare.
One of the most popular speakers to come through Omaha in those days was a familiar figure from my childhood, when kids in small towns on the Great Plains spent Saturday afternoons in movie theaters watching westerns. Ronald Reagan looked just like he did on the big screen. He was kind of a local boy who had made good, starting out as a radio star next door in Iowa and moving on to Hollywood, before becoming a television fixture as host of General Electric Theater.
Reagan’s Omaha appearances were part of his arrangement with GE, which allowed him to be an old-fashioned circuit-riding preacher, warning against the evils of big government and communism, while praising the virtues of big business and the free market. He was every inch a star, impeccably dressed and groomed. But those of us who shared his Midwestern roots were a bit surprised to find that although he was completely cordial, he was not noticeably warm. That part of his personality remained an enigma even to his closest friends and advisers throughout his historically successful political career.
In Omaha the only time he lightened up in my presence was when I noticed he was wearing contact lenses and I asked him about them. He got genuinely excited as he described how they were a new soft model, not like the hard ones that could irritate the eyes. He even wrote down the name of his California optometrist so Meredith could order a pair for herself. (Later, when he became president, I often thought, “He’s not only a great politician, he’s a helluva contact lens salesman.”)
President Kennedy also passed through Omaha, but only for a brief stop at the Strategic Air Command headquarters there. In those days, SAC was an instantly recognized acronym because the bombers it comprised—some of which we could see because they were always in the air ready to respond in case of an attack—were a central component of America’s Cold War military strategy.
More memorable for me was a visit to SAC by the president’s brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The younger Kennedy was a striking contrast to the president, who had been smiling and chatty with the local press and even more impressive in person than on television. Unlike the president, who was always meticulously and elegantly dressed, the attorney general was wearing a rumpled suit, and the collar on his blue button-down shirt was frayed. He was plainly impatient, and his mood did not improve when I asked for a reaction to Alabama governor George Wallace’s demand that JFK resign the presidency because of his stance on school desegregation. Bobby fixed those icy blue eyes on me and said, as if I were to blame for the governor’s statement, “I have no comment on anything Governor Wallace has to say.”
I was on duty in the newsroom a few weeks later when the United Press International wire-service machine began to sound its bulletin bells. I walked over casually and began to read a series of sentences breaking in staccato fashion down the page:
three shots were fired at president kennedy’s motorcade in downtown dallas . . . flash—kennedy seriously wounded, perhaps fatally by assassin’s bullet . . . president john f. kennedy died at approximately 1:00 pm (cst).
John F. Kennedy, the man I had thought would define the political ideal for the rest of my days, was suddenly gone in the senseless violence of a single moment. In ways we could not have known then, the gunshots in Dealey Plaza triggered a series of historic changes: the quagmire of Vietnam that led to the fall of Lyndon Johnson as president; the death of Robert Kennedy in pursuit of the presidency; and the comeback, presidency, and subsequent disgrace of Richard Nixon.
On that beautiful late autumn November morning, however, my immediate concern was to get this story on the air. I rushed the news onto our noon broadcast, and as I was running back to the newsroom, one of the station’s Kennedy haters said, “What’s up?”
I responded, “Kennedy’s been shot.”
He said, “It’s about time someone got the son of a bitch.”
Given the gauzy shades of popular memory, the invocations of Camelot and JFK as our nation’s prince, it may be surprising to younger Americans to know that President Kennedy was not universally beloved.
Now Kennedy was gone, and this man was glad. I lunged toward him, but another coworker pulled me away.
The rest of the day is mostly a blur except for one riveting memory. As I was speeding out toward SAC headquarters to see what restrictions they were putting on the base, I began to talk aloud to myself. “This doesn’t happen in America,” I said, still a child of the innocence of the Fifties. And then I distinctly remember thinking, “This will change us. I don’t know how, but this will change us.” And of course it did.
It was November 22, 1963, and it was, in effect, the beginning of what we now call the Sixties. Kennedy’s death was stunning not just because he was president. He was such a young president, and his election just three years before had kindled the dreams and aspirations of the young generation he embodied and inspired. His death seemed to rob us of all that was youthful and elegant, cool and smart, hopeful and idealistic. Who now would stir our generation by suggesting we ask “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”?
No political pundit or opposition strategist could have anticipated how JFK’s death would be the beginning of the unraveling of the Democratic coalition that had been forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and had formed the party’s electoral base ever since. When Lyndon Johnson emerged from Air Force One as the new president after the flight back from Dallas and stood somberly in the glare of the television lights at Andrews Air Force Base, he was already a familiar figure to most Americans. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast to JFK than LBJ, the large, ambitious Texan with the thick drawl and the great thirst for whiskey, women, and power. Now he seemed humbled and earnest as he looked into the cameras and said, “I ask for your help—and God’s.”
With LBJ we were back to business as usual with the old backroom pols, the men who wore hats and had spreading waistlines. To be sure, there was a lot about Kennedy we had not known then or had ignored— such as his chronic illnesses, his reckless ways with women, his Cold Warrior inclinations toward Vietnam, and his temporizing approach to the civil rights struggle.
In June 2007, when the Central Intelligence Agency opened many of its files to the public—those known as “the family jewels”—there were pages devoted to JFK’s enthusiastic authorization of a CIA surveillance campaign against a well-known New York Times military affairs reporter who had published stories involving classified material. When Richard Nixon became president and authorized a similar leak-plugging operation, it was seen as the first step toward Watergate.
But in the wake of President Kennedy’s violent death, America was in a state of shock, and the flaws or failings that were known to us only seemed to make him more human and his loss more deeply felt.
He became the prince of Camelot who left behind a widow whose beauty could not be compromised by grief, a woman not yet forty years old who would remain a part of our lives, in admiration and controversy, until she died in the closing days of the century. And their children, Caroline and John, Jr., now belonged to the nation as surely as the offspring of royalty.
Slowly, the rest of us went back to our ordinary lives, trying to absorb and understand the deep wounds we had sustained and the unimaginable loss we had suffered—and blissfully unaware of all the tragedy and tumult that lay not far ahead. My wife, Meredith, finally found a job teaching English at Central High School in Omaha. We rented a better apartment; this one even had access to a swimming pool, which seemed to us the height of luxury. We watched The Dick Van Dyke Show and Gunsmoke on our new black-and-white television. We bought our first set of furniture—sofa and matching chair, coffee table, dining room table and chairs, and two lamps—for four hundred dollars.
In the summer of 1964, we drove east to visit Washington, D.C., and New York City on vacation, a couple of Midwesterners curious about life over the horizon from the Great Plains. In Washington, as luck would have it, we were in the press gallery when the House passed the historic Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination in jobs and public accommodations. Reporters were shouting into telephones and banging away at typewriters. We saw Roger Mudd, the CBS news correspondent who had been tracking the legislation nightly on the CBS Evening News, and Bob Abernethy of NBC News on the phone filing a radio report. I felt like a kid from the sticks who somehow managed to wander into Yankee Stadium while the World Series was under way.
We were thrilled, but a friend who worked for the congressman from Omaha was not; his boss had voted against the act. Another conservative friend from the Midwest insisted, “You can’t legislate morality.”
Huh? “What about murder?” I asked. “It’s immoral to kill someone. If I’m not mistaken, we’ve passed laws to deal with that.”