Boomers, part 2: in which Beaver decides to be fab…

America’s First Family, Boomer parents’ edition

The Boomers are the first TV generation. We’ve been intimates of television since its infancy as the mass medium of choice for Americans.

Because of television’s limited options in those days, most Boomers, at least as children, lived with fewer than 6 channels and only 3 networks (although there were nascent public television systems, many viewers were unable to receive their signals).  There was also the old Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters. This set limits on the material presented on TV – and also served, good or ill, as a unifier of messages.

We Boomers learned a lot from television. TV was  quasi parent/sibling/best friend during the maturation of the majority of Boomers.  Families watched TV together – and the messages of television programming were designed with families both as subject – and as message.  The early years of Boomer television watching were dominated by shows with wise (if often exasperated)  fathers, nurturing ( if occasionally scatter-brained) mothers, and children who learned lessons. Boy Boomers and Girl Boomers received different lessons – both from the shows’ texts and from their subtexts. But lessons there always were.

Gee, Wally….

The Television (not Teflon) President…

And then came JFK.

Newscasts during the wonder years of the Boomers were pretty uninspired affairs. First Douglas Edwards at CBS, then Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC presented news with the distant aridity of the distant, arid president they reported on: delegator-in-chief Dwight Eisenhower.   Even at his most meaningfully prescient, watching Ike is about as riveting as watching paint dry. And the news programs of his times reflect that.

From his breakthrough appearance in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate onward, Kennedy fired the imagination of Boomers like no public figure before him – or since.  He was young, good-looking, and smart. His wife was beautiful, his children were Boomers, too, and, when he gave his inaugural, he became a bona fide television star.

And since we Boomers loved our TV stars, we embraced Kennedy – with a fervor that has never abated.

From the beginning Kennedy’s presidency created a narrative that somehow inspired – and elevated – nightly newscasts.  CBS would replace its anchor with a figure who would become a Boomer icon –  Walter Cronkite – whose avid support of Kennedy’s pet project – the space program – led to his ascent as the network news anchor.

And the sequence of events that formed the arc of the Kennedy presidency – from the debacle of the Bay of Pigs (with Kennedy’s humiliation in full view of the nation) to the Kennedy push to force Southern states to accept integration (with the stunning pictures of Southern police unleashing high pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators) to the triumphs of the American space program (with its interminable “holds” and ultimately thrilling liftoffs and reports from the astronauts – who became TV stars themselves) to the terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis (with its final grand performance by the brilliant Adlai Stevenson, his reputation as American statesman  rescued by Kennedy) made for great television.

And his assassination and funeral, televised nonstop for 4 days from November 22nd – 25th, 1963, affected Boomers in profoundly spiritual ways.

Many Boomers lie about having been at Woodstock – almost none have to lie about watching Jack Ruby murder Lee Harvey Oswald on television.

The median age of a Boomer at the time of Kennedy’s assassination was approximately 12.5 years – Bar/Bat Mitzvah age – the age when one must accept the responsibilities of adulthood. Seeing our young, heroic (to us Boomers, at least) president cut down for no clear reason made adulthood and all its traditional trappings – parental, professional, and especially civic responsibility –  seem a thing to be rejected.

The New Role Models…

This is what social scientists refer to as an existential moment – the moment when one’s view of life and the world is significantly shaped for the duration of one’s existence. For the Boomer generation, JFK’s assassination might safely be called the existential moment.

But what else could we do? Did we have to follow the path our parents – and JFK – laid out as right and proper? Could there be another path?

Ten weeks later television would show Boomers (especially males) what seemed a great new option to traditional adulthood….

(Part 3 to come….)

10 replies »

  1. Kennedy. I can’t help wondering, as I have for years, what would have become of the Boomer gen had he not been killed (and then Bobby, too). In truth, the legend of JFK has always been rather spectacular while the reality of his presidency was … somewhat less spectacular. If his legacy today were Bay o’ Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis and, by the way, accelerating that war that Boomers are so famous for protesting against instead of dying young and beautiful and romantic, how might that have changed the Boom?

    Guess we’ll never know, but it’s an interesting question to speculate on.

    So, who are those skinny little gits in the picture at the bottom?

  2. Kennedy’s plan was to withdraw the advisers from SE Asia – in this he was influenced much by brother Bobby (and some of the other inner circle guys) who saw Vietnam as another Bay of Pigs -only on a scale that could get out of hand quickly. Boy, were they right.

    LBJ (and his military buddies LeMay and Westmoreland – and, as it turned out, McNamara) opposed this. After JFK died, LBJ was just looking for a reason…when he couldn’t find one, he invented one – the Gulf of Tonkin….

    The guys at the bottom? No one important evidently – at least according to S&R readers….

  3. As among the earliest of Boomers (b. early 1946), I find Jim’s insight fascinating, sobering, tantalizing … and I wonder, all these years later …. what the hell happened to us?

    Thanks, Jim.

  4. Mixed feelings on Kennedy…there’s just too much that he would have done. Maybe he would have done it, but i’m not so sure. I think his campaigning on the missile gap (which was a huge lie that he probably knew was a lie…though he may not of known the size of the life…it was actually 160 – 4 in favor of the US when Kennedy campaigned on it) suggests something different than the icon working for world peace.

    Then there’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, which gets played for history much differently than it actually happened, so i’d imagine that contemporary coverage was at least as lacking as the breezy history.

    Maybe one of the resident Boomers can tell me if the news reports talked about the Soviet placements in Cuba as retaliation for US placements in Turkey, and how the agreement consisted of the Soviets turning away from Cuba in return for US missiles leaving Turkey? (the last part certainly wasn’t, as the agreement included an understanding that Khrushchev would keep quiet so that Kennedy didn’t lose political face)

    As the first TV generation, does it make the Boomers the first generation to be so easily manipulated, psychologically? (Not that manipulation couldn’t happen before television…Remember the Maine!”

  5. Great questions, Lex.

    All the information about the deal between Kennedy and Khrushchev came out in the US (or at least got some real play) only in the eighties. when deconstructing icons became fashionable (this was partly I suspect a tool of the Reaganites to discredit Kennedy, a Democrat – to make him look like a back room pol as well as a philanderer served St. Ronnie’s minions well). Denny may be able to shed some light on whether there was any real media play on the “solution” to the crisis earlier.

    Getting duped by the media is only as effective as the medium itself – there’s a whole new ball game each time one moves from medium to medium. From Hearst newspapers (source of your reference about the Maine) to radio (remember Orson Welles’s panic inducing presentation of WAR OF THE WORLDS) to television with its ability to show images – something I’ll talk about in part 3 in relation not just to the Kennedy assassination and Beatlemania but to the civil rights movement and of course the “living room war” – Vietnam…. Seeing becomes believing – and demagoguery becomes Tea Party….

  6. A median Boomer — aged 13 when JFK was shot — I couldn’t believe my eyes when Oswald was shot on live TV while I was watching. As for the Cuban Missile Crisis, it still resonates in my unconscious today.

  7. I think TV also opened our eyes to the possibility that there was more to our world than what we experienced first hand. There was a broader world out there.