October 23, 2019

The faces of America

I continue to be incommunicado this week*, on assignment for my job. There's nothing secretive about it; it's just that otherwise I might be swamped by requests for autographs and copies of my books, and it's pretty embarrassing when that happens in front of your co-workers.

*True story: during Bill Russell's tenure as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, the assistant general manager told one of his players, Slick Watts, that Russell was incommunicado, upon which Watts suggested putting in a call to him there.

At any rate, I didn't want to start anything too new, so I thought we'd just revisit something we've looked at before, because it offers such a contrast between then and now. It's one of those "television as a window to the world" moments, although that itself isn't a particularly accurate cliche; with a director's ability to choose what we see with live events, for example, it's more accurate to say that television is window to what someone wants us to see, a window to their worldview. Even so, there are occasions when the sample size is so big, so vast, that it's impossible not to draw conclusions from what you see.

Such a case is a new (to me) video I was watching last week, CBS's coverage of the Sunday of JFK's assassination, including the crowds passing through the Capitol Rotunda, paying their respects to the late president. I've marked off a segment of the network's coverage where the cameras remain focused on the Rotunda scene for about 20 minutes; it's one of several such segments in the video. We're so familiar with those images in general, I think (even you youngsters out there, if any of you read this site), that sometimes, because there's so much to see, we lose track of just what it is that we're actually seeing: the vast panoply of the Rotunda, with John Trumbull's paintings portraying the founding and early history of the United States; the silent crowds passing by the black-shrouded catafalque displaying the flag-draped casket of the president; the honor guard standing at rigid attention. By the time it's over, at 10:00 the next morning, police estimate that over 250,000 will have come through the Rotunda. The networks return to the scene often, between memorial concerts and updates on Oswald's murder and highlights of the day's ceremonies. Commentary is kept to a minimum, the newscasters respecting the moment, sometimes unsure of their own voices. Aside from the natural sound, the only other accompaniment is the classical music being played; a lot of Beethoven, Barber's Adagio, Bach, Wagner, possibly Handel or Mozart. It sounds right. NBC chooses to remain on the air all night, showing the faces of America caught up in the act of being Americans.

Many of the men and women are dressed more formally than they might be today: men in suits and ties, holding their hats; women in dresses and coats, some trimmed with fur or wearing necklaces, others wearing more modest cloth coats. Some of it could be due to it being Sunday; with the massive crowds waiting throughout the day and into the night, many of them probably came to the Capitol right from church. Military men pass by the cameras, saluting smartly at the casket. Other people look as if they're dressed for work; nurses in their uniforms, men wearing jackets, headed for the assembly line or the construction site. Upper class, middle class, working class, all together for the same reason. There are many blacks in the crowd, not surprising considering the demographics of the D.C. area, but also because of their feelings toward a president who supported their civil rights cause; but even so they don't make up the majority of people who appear on our screens. Parents stoop to talk with their small children, pointing at the president's casket, trying to explain what they don't understand themselves. Young people—a lot of young people, but others in the prime of middle age, and seniors as well. They pass beside the casket on each side, two or three wide, silent except for the sound of their footsteps, and then they disappear into the shadows, fleeting silhouettes; the silent Americans.

And now we come to my point, which is this: would we see something like this today? It's inconceivable that all of these people were Kennedy supporters, or had voted for him. Would that be the case today, would people come to pay homage to a president they hadn't voted for? Is it even possible to not hate the president you don't vote for? Would mourners dress the way they did, would they see their clothing as a way of lending a sense of gravitas to the moment? Would blacks and whites mix so freely, united in a singular feeling of grief and sorrow? Would people even shed tears for someone they didn't know and might not have even voted for, simply because it was the president of the United States lying their, removed not by an election but by an act of terror? Would they view an attack against the president as an attack against their country, against themselves? Would this be a moment of mourning, or would it be mere sentimentality, with flowers and stuffed animals piling up against the gates of the White House?

Certainly there were other scenes around the Capitol, and the nation, that night. And yet, no matter where one was, no matter who was directing the shots, I suspect most of these scenes would be the same. Not all, to be sure, because that kind of uniformity of feeling is impossible, even in such circumstances. There were a lot of people who didn't like JFK, who didn't like the Kennedys, period, and not all of them set aside their feelings in a moment of national tragedy. Not every scene was silent and grave; the kids playing in the park as the funeral procession passed, for instance, either didn't know or didn't care what was going on. For some of them, teens perhaps, it was a lark; for others, it was their own way of processing the moment.

Whatever it was, whatever one saw on television, it was a scene from a united nation, a nation with a common history, a shared past, a lived heritage. Whether or not this was the moment that was the beginning of the end, the event that started the slide to where we are today, we don't know; we can't read too much into it, to give it an inflated significance or importance. We do know that this was a turning point in the history of television, a demonstration of the medium's ability to united a nation in a single moment, a single thought. Thanks to television, that moment existed, and still exists today for those who watch it. I defy anyone to do so without retreating into their own thoughts, their own meditations on what it shows us, what we were then, what we are today. TV  

1 comment:

  1. The live coverage from that weekend is, to me, the only real way those of us who weren't alive then can really grasp the real emotional impact of what happened - Manchester's book comes close, but there's something about living it out in real time through the archived footage. A few years back I worked my way through the CBS coverage of the whole weekend, through the end of the funeral, and it's one of the most emotionally draining things I've ever done. From the live memorial program on Saturday morning where a soloist breaks into a sob in the middle of her performance, to the unbearable sadness of the funeral itself, it has stayed with me. I now truly get the story my mother tells from that weekend: an elderly neighbor had come over to their house to watch the funeral. As the flag-draped casket was brought out for the final journey to Arlington, the neighbor slowly stood and rendered a hand salute.

    The other enduring thing about all that coverage is its dignity. Everything seemed appropriately muted, even the telop cards and staff announcers. The special programs that were aired to fill time tried to lend something, and the talking-head roundtables had public intellectuals who took turns speaking and seemed to listen to each other during the discussions. It's a model of coverage that now seems as gone as the covered wagon. Now we'd be buried in multiple angles; endless screen clutter; talking heads shouting at one another; special theme music and graphics, endlessly used, meant to wring every last bit of emotional impact out of the moment; the footage of the assassination (which these days would be captured by at least 200 people on their cell phones) on an endless loop; and most all the other excesses that have made television so hard to watch any more. Not to mention how many people waiting in line to file through the Rotunda might well mug for the cameras (and I strongly doubt they'd dress up, too).

    For so many reasons, that clip you wrote about is poignant.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!