Thursday, January 1, 2015

the sixties: an introduction

I wasn't ready for the sixties, but then i guess maybe no one was. For me they were prefaced by a replay of the thirty years war on  my great-grandmother's porch as she--protestant--and her sister--catholic--argued about what John F. Kennedy might be like as president. They ended more or less in the ashes and coffins of the war in Vietnam. 'Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.'

The day I listened to Kennedy's inaugural speech was sunny in Jonesboro. The great cold front that kept President Hoover from attending the inauguration had already moved east. I remember listening to the new, young, president, on my Channel Master transistor radio while I worked in jeans and t-shirt on some carpentry project in the back yard, but this is an unreliable memory since 20 January was a Friday. It was a heady time, it seemed, for liberals,which was more or less what I considered myself. Marian Anderson sang 'The Star Spangled Banner', and there was a fanfare written by Leonard Bernstein, and a poem, 'The Gift Outright', by Robert Frost, with the addition of a special 'Preface'. My great-grandmother's fears were fed by Mr. Kennedy's attending a mass in Georgetown before the ceremony, and by Richard Cardinal Cushing's twelve-minute invocation, but there were also prayers by a pastor from Austin, Texas, and by Rabbi Nelson Glueck and an orthodox archbishop.

Despite the feeling that a new era was beginning, Sammy Davis, Jr., was dis-invited because of his marriage to a white Swede, May Britt, which had been postponed until after the election.  Still, many black artists were around for the inauguration and the celebrations afterwards, as well as non-black artists such as Mark Rothko and Diana Vreeland. The contrast between 70-year-old Eisenhower and 43-year-old Kennedy was remarkable. The contrast between Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy was even more remarkable.

The short presidency of John Kennedy, which ended with his wife holding his bleeding head on her pink Chanel knock-off, was called 'Camelot', and seemed much more hopeful than was really justified. The president who had said 'we should never fear to negotiate' would bring us to the brink of war over Soviet missiles in Cuba. The president who would often repeat in his speech 'Let both sides', was able to do little to unite the sides, but his perceived radicalism perhaps made it easier for President Johnson to bring about some real negotiation between 'both sides'.

I have no intention to praise or vilify President Kennedy. The times were beginning to become very complicated. I merely suggest that his presidency is a good symbol for the hope we had for the new decade in 1961 and for the very different ways the decade would work out. It was as if we were all flower children, whether we knew it or not.

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