Sunday, November 17, 2013

It's just 50 years, but in a way, it seems like 200

If you were born after 1980, it may be hard to imagine the small but important ways in which the world of 50 years ago--the world of my childhood--was different from today. There were no ATMs. Postage stamps cost 5 cents. There was no internet, no e-mail, no Twitter, no Netflix, no cable TV, no cell phones, no Wikipedia. Most cars did not have seatbelts. There were no SUVs--people bought large station wagons with fake wood panels on the side. Telephones had dials on them, but the very first pushbutton phones had been introduced. We had not yet been to the Moon.

Most people smoked. Most men wore hats, and most women wore hats to church. Most women wore dresses. Many cars were still not air-conditioned.

When you flew on an airplane, you were served an actual meal, served with tableware and napkins, like a restaurant meal but on a plastic tray.

Real-time TV broadcasts across the ocean only became possible in 1963, with the introduction of the Telstar satellite. My parents called me into our livingroom to watch a real-time broadcast of French people singing folk songs.

Many TV shows were in black and white, and if a show was in color, that was special. A peacock symbol would come on TV, and the announcer would excitedly say, "The following program is brought to you in living color!" Words like "sex," "pregnant," etc. could not be mentioned on TV. Married couples in TV sitcoms were shown going to sleep in twin beds, not touching. Seriously.

What did this mean on the day Kennedy was shot?

Walter Cronkite had to announce the news first on audio only, because it took 20 minutes to get a camera set up.

Half the President's cabinet, including the Secretary of State, next in the line of Presidential succession after the Vice President, was on a government plane flying from Hawaii to Japan. Their only connection to the day's events were radio transmissions to and from the White House situation room. When they heard what had happened, they turned around. Their being informed and turning around was a matter of a couple of hours.

When a federal judge in Texas, Sarah T. Hughes, was tapped to go on Air Force 1 to administer the oath of office to Vice President Johnson, she said, "Is there an oath?" No one could find it, and they had to devise one.

CBS News didn't know for a couple of hours if President Johnson had been sworn in, or where he physically was.

Compared to today's instantaneous communications, via Twitter and other means, this all sounds like the era of parchment and quill pens. And yet it was only 50 years ago.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Little clues, large truths

Small details can yield real insight into who and what a person is. In a book of reminiscences about life in Washington, DC, compiled by Katharine Graham, I read that one Washington socialite summed up President Herbert Hoover by the fact that, while listening to a performance of a Beethoven sonata, he absent-mindedly clinked the change in his pocket.

Making my way through John Ferling's excellent Jefferson and Hamilton and the Rivalry that Shaped America, I read that Jefferson had Hamilton to dinner one evening when they were both new members of Washington's first cabinet and were just getting to know each other. Hamilton noticed portraits of John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, and Sir Francis Bacon hanging in Jefferson's house and asked who they were.

"The three greatest men that the world has ever produced," Jefferson answered.

"The greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar," Hamilton replied.

At once, Jefferson saw how great the gulf was that separated him from his soon-to-be antagonist.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

All is lost and much is missing

I think I'll head to Studio on the Square to see the new Robert Redford movie, All is Lost. No, it's not about my dating life but about a man sailing the Indian Ocean alone, who must struggle to survive after his boat is struck by floating debris from a cargo ship. That part, sadly, is true: the world's oceans are now dotted with islands of floating garbage, some several acres in extent, from causes ranging from losses from cargo ships to the Japanese tsunami of a few years ago. Other than that, it occurs to me that, in the current cultural context of movies, the title "All is Lost" may refer to the fact that the movie contains no car chases, no explosions, no romantic interest or bedroom scenes, no other actors at all, and almost no dialogue. In other words, the viewer's interest must be held by the eloquent expressiveness of the face of a 77-year-old actor, which is kind of like being on a 4-hour walk with nothing but one's own thoughts to keep one company, an unthinkable condition for many.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Gaiety then and now

I suppose there could hardly be a better time to read historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s A Thousand Days, his 1965 memoir of the Kennedy White House, than this month. Schlesinger's combination of an observant eye and his historian's instinct for little-known facts lead him to paint a vivid picture of Camelot; we learn, for instance, that the core thought of "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do your country" is one that Kennedy had turned over in his mind for quite some time, but it also echoed a sentiment in a Memorial Day speech given by future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1884. We read that Kennedy caustically dismissed Eisenhower as disloyal to old friends and only interested in playing golf with "a bunch of rich guys that he met after 1945"; on the other hand, speaking of Barry Goldwater, whose politics and background were the polar opposite of Kennedy's own, Kennedy called him a man of character and decency.

I'm reading a description of the similarities and differences between Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson, twice the Democratic nominee for President and, later, Kennedy's Ambassador to the UN. Schlesinger says that visits to the homes of either Kennedy, in Massachusetts, or Stevenson, in Illinois, "had very much the same mood and tempo--the same sort of spacious, tranquil country house; the same patrician ease of manners; the same sense of children and dogs in the background; the same kind of irrelevant European visitors; the same gay humor"...umm, how's that again? Gay humor? Well, no, not *that* kind of gay (though just such rumors were floated, at one point, about Stevenson, because of his lifelong bachelorhood, but in fact, he was just as much a ladies' man as Kennedy). It's funny...this book was written only 48 years ago, but almost no one uses "gay" any more in its traditional sense, as Schlesinger used it. How the world has changed.

© Michael Huggins, 2013. All rights reserved.