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.
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.
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….)