December 12, 2018

The untold stories of history, as seen on TV

There's a scene in the classic Yuletide movie The Bishop's Wife—the original version, with Cary Grant, Loretta Young and David Niven—in which Grant's character, an angel, explains to a history professor (Monty Wolley) the significance of a seemingly unimportant old coin. It's a coin that Julius Caesar minted to honor Cleopatra, Grant says, and Caesar's jealous wife ordered all copies of the coin destroyed; this particular coin is the only one that survived. Grant point to the professor (and I'm paraphrasing here) is that these untold stories are what make up history, and he's right. The headlines may tell us what happened, but oftentimes it's these little moments that make history real, that bring it to life.

Case in point is this video from the Archive of American Television, a product of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and let me take a moment here to put in a plug for the Archive's YouTube channel, which is a veritable oral history of television. Click on one of these videos, and I can almost guarantee that two hours later you'll still be pursuing a thread of interviews, each one more interesting than you could possibly have imagined, valuable not only to a humble television historian such as yours truly, but to anyone interested in television of any era.

What we have here is a segment from a longer interview with Max Schindler, veteran news director at NBC. He's talking about his role in the coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination and funeral, and in just a little over eight minutes he provides several such moments of untold history, none more fascinating than his final anecdote, one dealing with the arrival of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, carrying the late President Kennedy and the very-much alive President Lyndon Johnson. Listen to the story of Johnson's departure from the plane to face the cameras for the first time as president.*

*Here is a link to the scene that Schindler describes. 

It's that untold story, told to Schindler by LBJ, that you won't read in most history books. And yet, as Jim Lehrer says in another of the Academy's interviews, everyone has stories like this; and it is these stories, taken together, that form the mosaic that is history. It lives, it breathes, it jumps off the page and the screen. It becomes the story of us, the story of humanity—and that is how history lives forever. TV  


  1. This article is prescient for me.

    40 years ago next week, I defended my master's thesis in communications and journalism at Syracuse University. This historic tape and speech by LBJ was used as part of my thesis.

    The actual event was burned into my memory at age 10. 15 years later, it was foundational to my master's degree.

    Serendipity lives in late 2018....thanks for a great memory, Mitchell.

    1. Fascinating! How lucky I am to have such interesting readers - I think I learn more from you all than you do from me!


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