Fifty Years

Kennedy-Johnson Button: Leadership for the 60sFifty years ago today, John F. Kennedy was elected the thirty-fifth President of the United States.

I was eight years old, and I was for Kennedy.

I don’t remember any political discussion during this election, except that one of my aunts was going to vote for Kennedy, because she was a Catholic. I didn’t understand. I thought perhaps “Catholic” and “Democrat” were two names for the same thing.

I was for Kennedy because I had seen a campaign billboard with side-by-side portraits of two men. Kennedy was young, smiling and handsome. The other guy looked old, ugly and mean.

Years later, I realized the other guy was almost certainly Lyndon Johnson, not Richard Nixon. Campaigns don’t usually post billboards of the two opposing candidates.

It’s hard to believe those fifty years are more than a fifth of the time since the beginning of the American Revolution.

It doesn’t seem like a long time to me. The haircuts and the clothing styles still seem right. I can still watch some of the same TV shows.

Instead of iPods, we had transistor radios. Imagine — a radio you can carry in your pocket!

There was no satellite TV, no cable TV, no internet. People didn’t have computers. Banks didn’t have computers. To make a long-distance telephone call, you dialed the operator. The first Xerox photo-copier had just been released. The polio vaccine had been around only a few years. The first heart pacemaker had been surgically implanted only two years earlier.

Cars were big. They didn’t have airbags or seatbelts — or fuel economy standards or safety standards, either.

Those who worried about conserving natural resources, or about air and water pollution, were on the fringe. Always good for a chuckle.

A doctor was always a man. A little girl could grow up to be a housewife, a mother, a secretary, a bank teller, a teacher, or even a nurse.

Who could have imagined that might not be enough?

In some parts of the country, African-Americans were not allowed to vote, or to attend the best public schools or state colleges.

And yet 1960 feels familiar to me.

In 1960, you could easily have found plenty of people who remembered the world as it was fifty years earlier, in 1910: William Howard Taft was president. American women couldn’t vote. John F. Kennedy hadn’t been born.

Many features of the modern world existed then, but to most people, they were novelties, on the fringe of everyday experience: moving pictures, telephones, sound recordings.

Airplanes and automobiles existed, but who imagined they could be a practical form of transportation?

I don’t know how widespread the use of electricity was — or how common indoor plumbing was outside of cities.

Photography was well-known, but newspapers had not yet adopted the rotogravure process that made mass printing of photos possible. Radiotelegraphy would capture the public imagination two years later, when it brought news of the sinking of the Titanic, but it was a specialized subject in 1910.

But I think a 1960 person who remembered 1910 as I remember 1960 would say that the world had changed a little around the edges, but that the world of 1910 still felt familiar.

Take an easy stride back another fifty years, and Abraham Lincoln has just been elected the 16th President of the United States. The hot technologies of the day are the railroad and the telegraph.

Another fifty years, and Abraham Lincoln is not quite two years old, and James Madison is president.

We can keep going back, fifty years at a time, and I think we could always find an observer who remembers the bygone time as if it were yesterday, and who doesn’t feel that things have changed all that much.

Take just eight of these strides into the past, and we’re in 1610, the year Galileo used his telescope to discover four moons orbiting Jupiter. In England, William Shakespeare is writing The Tempest, and it will be another year before the release of the King James Version of the Bible.

Time flies, huh?

It’s not an original thought, but the one constant thing in the world is change.

I’ve known people who will conjure up something from the past — a gas-guzzling old land yacht from the fifties or sixties, for example — and say, “That’s the way life’s supposed to be.”

Nah.

Here’s the way it’s supposed to be: We look at the problems that confront us. We make our best, honest effort to foresee the problems yet to come. We consider what we have and what we need. We think. We act. We change.

Tomorrow we’ll change some more.

Update: Life magazine has photos of Kennedy on the campaign trail.