ISIS, Khorasan, Ferguson, Gaza, Putin: The summer of 2014 had been deemed America’s “worst ever” well before Ebola, the Ray Rice video, and the Secret Service debacle kicked in. One sees the point even if it requires historical amnesia about other bad summers (like, say, that one with the Battle of Gettysburg). But you also have to ask: What was a great American summer, exactly? Lazy, hazy 2001, when a peaceful country and its new president nodded off through Labor Day, worrying about little more than an alleged uptick in shark attacks?
The fact is that we can’t write history while we’re in it — not even that first draft of history that journalists aspire to write. While 2014 may have a shot at eternal infamy, our myopia and narcissism encourage us to discount the possibility that this year could be merely an inconsequential speed bump on the way to some greater catastrophe or unexpected nirvana. This was brought home to me when, in a quest for both a distraction from and a perspective on our current run of dreadful news, I revisited 1964, the vintage American year that has been serving as an unofficial foil, if not antidote, to 2014.
It’s easy to travel back there, thanks to the many media retrospectives marking 1964’s half-centenary in ironic counterpoint to this year’s woes. You could feast on the commemorations of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act — The Bill of the Century, as one new book had it — to learn how Washington once accomplished great things. You could relive The Night That Changed America, CBS’s canonization of the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. PBS fielded two documentaries: Freedom Summer, chronicling that courageous civil-rights movement in Mississippi, and 1964, which, like its inspiration, Jon Margolis’s book The Last Innocent Year, distinguished the relatively upbeat 1964 from the apocalyptic ’60s to come. The Times and Daily News saluted the 1964 World’s Fair, with its quaint American Century faith in the inexorability of progress. The fair’s slogan was “Peace Through Understanding,” and its equally naïve signature anthem was “It’s a Small World (After All).” As the soundtrack for a popular ride cross-promoting unicef and Pepsi, the song may not have advanced world peace, but it did do its bit to hook a generation of kids on sugary drinks.
If you were young in 1964, you may have fond memories of that year as well. I have never forgotten how the Beatles, who landed in my hometown of Washington, D.C., for their first American concert in February, chased away the Kennedy-assassination hangover, giving me and my ninth-grade peers permission to party again. From my own immature, hormonally addled perspective, the world kept leaping forward throughout that year as if a stiff wind were at its back—culminating with the election in which Johnson buried the opponent my elders deemed a trigger-happy proponent of nuclear Armageddon. It was a time when many in my boomer generation fell in love with the idea that change was something you could believe in—a particularly liberal notion that has taken hold in other generations, too, whether in the age of Roosevelt or Obama. Even as we recognize that the calendar makes for a crude and arbitrary marker, we like to think that history visibly marches on, on a schedule we can codify.
The more I dove back into the weeds of 1964, the more I realized that this is both wishful thinking and an optical illusion.
I came away with a new appreciation of how selective our collective memory is, and of just how glacially history moves, despite the can-do optimism of a modern America besotted with the pursuit of instant gratification. Asked at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair to anticipate 2014, Isaac Asimov got some things right (miniaturized computers, online education, flat-screen television, and what we now know as Skype), but many of his utopian predictions were delusional. His wrong calls included not just his interplanetary fantasies but his vision of underground suburbs that would protect mankind from war, rampaging weather, and the tyranny of the automobile. Asimov also thought birth control would find international acceptance. It was no doubt beyond even his imagination that a half-century hence American lawmakers would introduce “personhood” amendments attempting to all but outlaw contraception.
The screenwriter William Goldman famously summed up Hollywood in three words: “Nobody knows anything.” Would that this aphorism were applicable, as he intended, solely to the make-believe of show business. It often seems that nobody knew anything about anything in 1964. Most everyone was certain that the big political developments of the time, epitomized by LBJ’s victories for civil rights and against Goldwater, would be transformational. Many of the same seers saw the year’s cultural upheavals, starting with the Beatles, as ephemera. More often than not, the reverse has turned out to be true. Are we so much smarter in 2014?
To try to simulate how 1964 played out in real time, I didn’t rely on historians’ or public television’s subsequent interpretations but instead used as a baseline the Times, then as now the liberal newspaper of record. Among the digital gadgets with which the paper tries to retain subscribers in the post-print age is what it calls TimesMachine: full replicas of past editions (from 1851 to 1980) that you can leaf through in facsimile page by page online, much as one used to do with microfilm. Be warned: You can plug yourself into this machine and not pry yourself loose for hours. The acres of classified ads alone are New York City’s answer to the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was hooked from the moment I summoned up the paper of January 1, 1964.
As it happened, I did so in August, just as racial turmoil was riveting the nation on the heretofore obscure St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. I got all the way to page ten of this antique New Year’s Day edition before I was stopped short by a headline over a brief AP story: “St. Louis Holds 24 in Racial Protest.” Elsewhere in that same paper was an unintended paradigm of a culture war we’ve lived with ever since. A page-one story announced that the 55-year-old New York governor and presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller was expecting a child by his 37-year-old second wife. The front-page play, combined with the detailed chronology of the expectant parents’ marital histories, amounted to an editorial message: The divorced Rockefeller was no shoo-in with a Leave It to Beaver electorate that couldn’t watch married couples share the same bed on network television. (This taboo would be killed off later that year by Bewitched.) As if to rub it in, the same Times contained the prominent announcement of a June wedding for Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s daughter. The juxtaposition of these two aspiring First Families, one epitomizing the old Eastern Establishment and the other a new conservative order rising across the Sun Belt, would climax in July with the raucous booing of Rockefeller by the victorious Goldwater forces at the Republican National Convention.
At the back of the January 1, 1964, paper was yet another cultural artifact that seems contemporary a half-century later: an ad for NBC’s coverage of the Tournament of Roses Parade, graced by a photo of a star attraction, Betty White. Who would have imagined that she would outlast half the Beatles? A dueling ad for CBS coverage of the same festivities in Pasadena featured Ronald Reagan, then a Hollywood has-been, sharing the bill with the former Miss America turned game-show panelist Bess Myerson. Reagan’s true star turn of autumn 1964 — the prime-time preelection speech that ignited his political career — would barely be noted by the Times.
Steeping myself in the remaining days of 1964, I was struck by recurring patterns. Almost every contemporaneous sighting of an imminent resolution of a domestic or international conflict was premature. Almost every political division and social injustice that continues to plague America today was visible then. Almost every lasting cultural innovation, from the experimental-film revolution in the East Village to Pop Art uptown, was ignored, ridiculed, condescended to, or dismissed by the Times and its Establishment peers. While there has been epic progress on some major fronts in the 50 years since — the Soviet Union and Jim Crow both collapsed, for starters — there has not been nearly as much forward movement as imagined by those who were there then.
It was 1964 when the tantalizing prospect of a woman president was raised by the first female presidential candidate entering a major party’s primary, the much-admired Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine. But neither that front-page development nor Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique, then reaching a wide audience in paperback, fast-tracked a dream that may finally be realized in our own time. (Even now, men hold some 71 percent of all political offices in America.) Action on the public-health menace of smoking was on another slow track. When a government committee’s finding of the link between cigarettes and cancer became a front-page story in January, the Times added a sidebar explaining that this discovery was already old news: The new report echoed previous studies dating back to 1859 in France and 1936 in America. Nonetheless, it would not be until 1971 that the first substantial government regulation, barring cigarette ads on television, would go into effect.
Some less culturally loaded, eminently fixable American maladies identified in 1964 have been left to fester ever since — as exemplified by a subheadline beneath the Times banner announcing the Warren Commission Report: “Security Steps Taken by Secret Service Held Inadequate.” A 1964 best seller, Vance Packard’s The Naked Society, sounded the alarm that “the surveillance of citizens” was growing as a result of the rise of “peering electronic eyes, undercover agents, lie detectors, hidden tape recorders, bureaucratic investigators, and outrageously intrusive questionnaires,” not to mention wholesale domestic spying by the departments of Defense and Justice. Packard even foresaw internet snooping in the prospect of “cabled TV” collecting its users’ personal information. But in contrast to muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell during the Progressive Era, Packard could not spark a scintilla, let alone an age, of reform. A half-century later, we’re more exposed than ever.
The most explosive conflicts of 1964 remain entirely intact in America today: race, war, and the ideological battle over the role of government. The struggle for voting rights that led to the murder of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi that summer — and to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — continues to be fought in 2014, state by state and court by court, as if the bloody victories of a half-century ago were only provisional skirmishes in a never-ending civil war. Confrontations between white police and minority populations remain on a parallel continuum. Among the countless antecedents of this summer’s Ferguson unrest is a now half-forgotten incident from July 1964 — a days-long Harlem riot set off when an off-duty white police officer shot a black teenager. (This crisis was itself a replay of a 1943 Harlem riot that left five dead and 500 injured after a police officer shot a black soldier.) Yet faith in racial progress in 1964 was pervasive, at least among white liberals, despite such prominent dissenting voices as James Baldwin, whose The Fire Next Time was published a year earlier, and the new heavyweight champion, Cassius Clay, soon to be known as Muhammad Ali. Shocking as Clay’s victory over the favorite, Sonny Liston, was to the sports press, even more puzzling was his solidarity with Malcolm X and his contempt for Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil-rights movement. “I’m a citizen already” was how Clay put it.
Such sour notes could be dismissed by whites who saw racial progress conspicuously at hand. In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize and Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Actor (for Lilies of the Field). Once LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in July, the Times happily reported that “despite some bitter resistance, compliance is generally good” in the South. (The Mississippi murder victims’ bodies would be found a month later.) The legendary Times reporter Homer Bigart, on the ground in Savannah, wrote that Goldwater’s opposition to the civil-rights law notwithstanding, “most observers gave him scant chance” of winning Georgia, with its reputation for moderation in racial matters. In fact, Goldwater would win the state by a margin of 54 to 46 percent and sweep the rest of the Deep South by a landslide more lopsided than Johnson’s in the rest of the nation.
Resistance to desegregation was hardly limited to the old Confederacy. You will search mostly in vain for blacks (or other racial minorities) in newspaper and magazine advertisements of 1964, the heyday of the Mad Men era. There was “not a single Negro or Puerto Rican” among some 200 administrators at the World’s Fair, Robert Caro writes in The Power Broker, his biography of the fair’s vainglorious impresario, Robert Moses. In a new history of the fair, Tomorrow-Land, Joseph Tirella observes that “the glittering pavilions of Flushing Meadow’s manicured Fairgrounds and its utopian slogans had little—if anything—to do with the political turmoil of the city around it.” Third World countries were widely represented in Queens, but Moses vetoed Transit Authority plans that would have made the fair more accessible to low-income and minority visitors from the other boroughs. Still, the Illinois “Land of Lincoln” pavilion at the World’s Fair extolled the Great Emancipator, in the form of a Disney audio-animatronic robot, much as Broadway in 2014 would suit up Bryan Cranston to portray LBJ as Lincoln’s successor in All the Way. Then as now, a happy ending to America’s racial drama can always be had for the price of a ticket.
At least race was recognized as a battleground by Americans in 1964, albeit one where a truce was mistakenly seen on the horizon. The war in Vietnam was not seen as a real war, or a subject of debate, except to some scattered, under-the-radar draft protesters. When murky confrontations between U.S. destroyers and North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin moved Congress in August to give President Johnson a blank check to respond, the public yawned. The Tonkin resolution passed the Senate 88 to 2 after nine hours of debate following a 416-to-0 ratification in the House. The Times’ Washington wise man James Reston was baffled by the apathy of a populace unruffled by “a president who announces that he is willing to risk war with a quarter of the human race in China in order to save Vietnam” and “even more indifferent to cries from the Republican opposition for a policy that is even bolder.”
But Johnson’s vanquishing of the super-hawk Goldwater in November 1964 quieted fears that America would be caught up in a wider war in Southeast Asia. Anxieties about greater racial turmoil could also be put aside thanks to Johnson’s decisive victory. Analyzing the election returns, the Times found no sizable white backlash outside the old Confederacy; Reston wrote that “even the Middle Western Bible Belt” had turned against Goldwater. Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty had been vindicated by the voters, too. The election was “as fundamental in its way as the ratification of the New Deal 28 years ago,” according to the Times. The public had firmly rejected the right’s “assault on ‘big government’ and the social and welfare programs of the last thirty years.” No doubt Republican moderates who had outperformed the national ticket, rising stars like George Romney and John Lindsay, would end the GOP’s “revolutionary break with the centrist tradition of American politics” and lead the GOP “back into the sunlight of modernism.”
As we know now, just about every one of these conclusions was soon — in some cases very soon — proved wrong. By the end of 1965, there would be 180,000 American troops in Vietnam. Four years later, the metastasizing conflicts in Southeast Asia and at home would motivate a fair number of Americans both black and white to take to the streets to try to burn the place down.
Looking back at 1964 from the vantage point of 2014, you realize that one revolt was already in full swing and having a visible impact: the radical transformation of American culture. The February night that the Beatles first played The Ed Sullivan Show was hardly the night that changed America, but it was part of a wave that was unstoppable, no matter how much the powers that be, from show-business moguls to plain old middle-class suburban parents, tried to resist it. Revisiting 1964, you can see the old order fracture week by week.
The Times started mobilizing against the British Invasion even before the Beatles landed in February. When a filmed segment of the band turned up on The Jack Paar Program after New Year’s, the television critic Jack Gould declared that “on this side of the Atlantic it is dated stuff.” Once the Beatles appeared live in New York on Ed Sullivan, Gould dismissed them again, likening their shaggy hair to the wig worn by the morning-children’s-show host Captain Kangaroo. A front-page news story theorized that the Beatlemania “craze” faced “an awful prospect of demise.”
Such reaction was universal, across the cultural and political spectrum. At The New Yorker, “The Talk of the Town” subcontracted Beatles commentary to a young music fan who pronounced the group inferior to the Everly Brothers. The Washington Post went to the Beatles’ debut concert and branded them a “commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning.” William F. Buckley Jr. found the Beatles “not merely awful” but “God awful” and “appallingly unmusical.” The Nation dismissed them as a “very safe” diversion for the complacent upper-middle class. Robert Moses refused to book the Beatles at the World’s Fair, though they would soon fill the new Shea Stadium next door. He instead stuck with nightly concerts by Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians, whose pre-jazz brand of easy-listening band music dated back to the late ’20s. Lombardo, Moses insisted, was “a favorite with many of the kids, if not the wildest ones.”
The effort to push back against an incipient counterculture extended well beyond music. Lenny Bruce was arrested for indecency at Café au Go Go in the Village. Pop Art was seen as a juvenile prank: When the architect Philip Johnson commissioned an Andy Warhol mural for the fair’s New York State pavilion, the result, a jamboree of homoerotic police mug shots titled 13 Most Wanted Men, had to be painted over within days to spare Rockefeller a potential political embarrassment. The perennially best-selling novelist John O’Hara was ubiquitous at the Times and New Yorker, but the upstart Frank O’Hara, whose Lunch Poems was published in 1964, barely registered. A nascent revolution in Hollywood also flummoxed cultural gatekeepers. Confronted with the breakthrough black comedy of the Cold War era, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the Times critic Bosley Crowther admitted it was funny but also condemned it as “dangerous.” “Is Nothing Sacred?” was the headline of one of two follow-up pieces he wrote for the Sunday paper. How, he wondered, could a movie have the gall to mock “top-level scientists,” diplomats, “the experts,” prime ministers, and “even the president of the United States” as “fuddy-duds or maniac monsters who are completely unable to control the bomb”? As if to accentuate how far removed such Establishment taste was from this anarchic new fever loose in the American bloodstream, the same editions of the Times featured ads for the notorious Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton turkey Cleopatra, crowing that Crowther had named it “one of the year’s ten best” in 1963.
Resistance to this cultural sea change crumbled swiftly. Even Crowther beat a hasty retreat, putting Strangelove on his 1964 ten-best list in December despite having labeled it “defeatist and destructive of morale” in February. ABC, eager to ride the youth wave, preempted its long-running Western series Wagon Train in November for a Beatles concert. The network also pitted a new rock-and-roll series, Shindig!, against CBS’s cornpone hit The Beverly Hillbillies, ending its reign as the No. 1 Nielsen show. The squarest of television variety hours, The Hollywood Palace and The Red Skelton Hour, felt compelled to compete by booking another new English invader, the Rolling Stones—much to the annoyance of Dean Martin, who insulted the Stones on-camera in his role as Hollywood Palace emcee. It’s hard to believe that a Belgian novelty act, the Singing Nun, had been at the top of the charts when 1964 began. Meet the Beatles would soon outsell the best-selling popular-music long-playing disc of the postwar era, the Broadway cast album of My Fair Lady. Columbia, the august label that had released My Fair Lady and often dominated the popular and classical music industries, released two new Bob Dylan LPs in 1964 alone. Whatever critics or Robert Moses had to say, the cultural marketplace was racing to go where the customers were and commodify every development bubbling up from below. Capitalism trumped any objections from the doomed status quo.
In 2014, our rapid cultural transformations again seem as real as those of a half-century ago, even if the biggest revolution of our era is digital, not musical—a culture spawned in the environs of Cupertino’s Apple rather than Abbey Road’s. But all bets are off on every other event and phenomenon we regard as seismic, game-changing, and historic in this year. It’s humbling and in some instances a bit reassuring to know that our current hunches about what history holds are likely to be as wrongheaded as many of the definitive judgments of 1964. “Readers of the full report,” a Times editorial intoned about the Warren Commission, “will find no basis for questioning the commission’s conclusion that President Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone.”
Today you must wonder whether speculation by Leon Panetta that we could have a 30-year-long war against ISIS and its terrorist brethren may be no more on the mark than the Johnson administration’s insistence that no “wider” war would come to Vietnam. The warnings that ISIS is a bigger foe than Al Qaeda — almost immediately rendered inoperative by estimates that Khorasan is more threatening than ISIS — may be worth little more than the intelligence that inflated the hostilities in the Gulf of Tonkin. Putin’s seizing of Crimea — likened in more than a few quarters to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia — is not necessarily the start of a new hot conflict but can also be seen as a desperate feint by a doomed regime. The NFL, presumed to be invulnerable to domestic-abuse and concussion scandals, could yet go the way of boxing, whose heavyweight championship was considered the “most valuable commodity in the world of sports” at the time of the Clay-Liston fight, in the words of the Times columnist Arthur Daley. Isaac Asimov’s old dream of space colonization — if ever achieved — may be realized by Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or India rather than the United States, Russia, or China. And for all our hyperventilating over who’s winning every morning in politics, America’s right and left may fight each other to a standoff in perpetuity. The undying punditocracy notion of a “centrist tradition” in America remains as much a mirage in 2014 as in 1964.
As James Baldwin said presciently in November 1963, “Americans are the youngest country, the largest country, and the strongest country, we like to say, and yet the very notion of change, real change, throws Americans into a panic.” No matter how many urgent reports on climate change are handed down, or how many vigils call for more gun regulation, reform may advance at a pace as halting as that which Baldwin foresaw for our endless struggle over race. Change we can believe in is less likely to happen overnight than on an installment plan. Even items left behind in the 1964 World’s Fair time capsule (credit cards, a ballpoint pen, plastic wrap, tranquilizers) have barely aged since. If anything, the most representative artifact of 1964 may be a television show that had its debut the month before the fair did: Jeopardy!, yet another American institution that, 50 years on, has proved resistant to all but cosmetic changes and periodic adjustments for inflation.
*This article appears in the October 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.