2012: Predicting the future, with hindsight

Story highlights

  • The new year can be looked at through the lens of history
  • Pundits have been trying to predict 2012 election; better to take breath, look at past
  • Some events made little impact at time, now loom large

Fifty years ago this new year, on March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game.

Today, it's one of the great records of professional sports, surrounded by a warm, golden glow. Tens of thousands swear they were there, or watched it on television. The game pitted Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors against the New York Knicks, and so people remember it as having happened at New York's Madison Square Garden. And it surely dominated every sports page and news broadcast the next day, right?

Try again.

The game took place at the Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania. There were 4,124 people on hand, just more than half capacity. No film or video exists; the sole live account is a tape made of the radio broadcast. And it wasn't that big of a deal at the time. Chamberlain averaged more than 50 points a game that season, so a 100-point game -- though exceptional -- wasn't a huge story. And hey, it was in small-town Pennsylvania; the New York papers didn't even send reporters. (The New York Times picked up an Associated Press story.)

What does that tell us?

As we look ahead to a new year, there may be a "100-point day" on the horizon: a seemingly trivial, poorly chronicled event that ends up looming large. More likely, we'll be faced with the opposite: a major newsmaker who turns into a footnote in the flash of an optical line.

Either way, in our hyperactive, instant-satisfaction media environment, it helps to let history speak -- or at least let it clear its voice.

Already, there are story lines of the new year the past can inform.

Take the narrative that's likely to dominate 2012: the U.S. presidential election. In 2011, the hot story in the Republican nomination battle seemed to change weekly: first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, then Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Mitt Romney was a shoo-in; Mitt Romney was a loser. President Obama was going to crush the opposition, whomever it was. Then he was going to go down. All this, and the Iowa caucus hasn't even happened yet.

So let's look at the past. Forty years ago, at the beginning of 1972, Edmund Muskie was the Democratic front-runner against Richard Nixon. According to some 1971 polls, in fact, he was going to give the president a run for his money.

But in the Iowa caucuses in late January, he tied "Uncommitted" for the win. He won New Hampshire in early March, but his victory was written off because it didn't meet "expectations" -- and George McGovern, who finished a strong second, was anointed the new golden boy. Even McGovern was no guarantee, as he faced challenges from the party's right flank throughout the campaign.

That year was also shaken by an assassination attempt, as Alabama Gov. George Wallace -- a 1968 presidential nominee who won several primaries in 1972 -- was shot in May.

By the end of the year, with the hapless McGovern -- now the Democratic nominee -- having dumped a running mate and Nixon not yet touched by the growing Watergate scandal, the president won in a landslide.

Walmart, from small store to big influence

Other past events may have seemed minor at the time, but cast a long shadow into 2012.

On July 2, 1962, Sam Walton -- who'd previously operated a Ben Franklin variety store and his own Walton's Five and Dime -- opened the first Walmart (then "Wal-Mart") in Rogers, Arkansas. Within 10 years his department store was a regional powerhouse; today it's the largest company in America.

It also has become a symbol of our present cultural divide, its shoppers derided on websites, its big-box stores accused of having killed small-town Main Streets, its efficiency and pricing studied by academics.

Its success has made the Walton family extremely wealthy -- money the clan has, in the time-honored fashion of millionaires throughout history, pumped into charity and culture. Most notably, Sam's daughter Alice Walton, whose estimated $20.9 billion places her 10th on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, spearheaded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The Bentonville, Arkansas, museum, which opened in November, has already become a major and controversial player in the acquisition of American art. Could it also change the Walmart image?

One of the primary entertainment trends of recent years -- and one with legs into the future -- can also be traced back 50 years.

In August 1962, Marvel Comics introduced a new kind of superhero. Peter Parker was a neurotic teenager whose angst was only amplified by his superpowers, which were triggered when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. As Spider-Man, Parker still didn't have it together, questioning himself even while dispatching such criminals as the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.

Spider-Man wasn't conceived as anything special -- the character first appeared in issue 15 of the Marvel title "Amazing Fantasy" -- but his popularity quickly made the superhero the subject of his own comic book, followed by several TV series and, in the 2000s, three blockbuster movies.

The development of comic-book characters into franchises has occurred alongside the growing appreciation of the comic-book genre as art. Director Sam Raimi's 2002 "Spider-Man" earned both bundles of money and high marks from critics, helping make the Marvel brand -- now owned by Disney -- one of the most prized in Hollywood.

Spider-Man still has web-slinging to do. In 2012, he'll appear in a reboot of the movie series. The film, "The Amazing Spider-Man," is scheduled to open in July.

The 2012 Olympic Games in London may evoke memories of many previous Olympiads, but in today's terrorist-aware political climate, thoughts of the 1972 Munich games are sadly inescapable. Those Olympics may be celebrated for Mark Spitz's seven swimming gold medals (a record broken in the 2008 Beijing games by Michael Phelps, who won eight) and recalled for the controversial U.S.-USSR men's basketball final, but its lasting image may be that of a masked gunman on the balcony of the Olympic Village.

On the morning of September 5, 1972, eight members of the Palestinian group Black September broke into the Israeli team's apartments in the Olympic Village and took the 11 Israeli athletes hostage, killing two immediately. The next day, during an unsuccessful rescue at a NATO airbase, the other nine were killed. "They're all gone," ABC anchor Jim McKay solemnly said in announcing the news.

The incident has influenced security for each succeeding Olympics, an impact that's only been heightened by terrorist attacks of the 21st century.

The end of something

And then there are the endings, those events that indicated an old world was receding, though observers didn't know it at the time.

Fifty years ago, the CBS radio series "Suspense" went off the air. The show had run for 20 years, featured a who's-who of performers and even lent its tag line -- "Tales well-calculated to keep you in 'Suspense!' " -- to parody from Mad magazine (which claimed it offered "Tales calculated to drive you Mad!"). Its demise is considered to have brought an end to the "Golden Age of Radio."

Today, the same might be said for television watching. No, the concept of TV isn't going anywhere -- but in 2011, for the first time, overall TV ownership declined, according to Nielsen. Moreover, the percentage of homes without a television, 3%, is at its highest level since 1975. As more people gravitate to tablets, phones and other technological gadgetry, the financial model of TV itself will evolve.

Forty years ago December 7, Apollo 17 launched with astronauts Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans aboard. At the time, few would have believed that manned space exploration was over, but we haven't sent a manned mission to the moon since. With 2011 marking the end of the space shuttle program, NASA is searching for a new plan. The next year may decide how soon humans leave low-Earth orbit again.

Now that 2011 is over and done with, we can only imagine what will linger. The effects of the Japan tsunami and nuclear accident, surely; the death of Osama bin Laden, probably. But will any observers 50 years hence, or even 10 years from now,- know what a "Kardashian" is, or care about the fate of Casey Anthony? Will anybody admit to remembering Tebowing?

It's anybody's guess. Indeed, given that it's hard enough to look back, looking forward can be even more of a fool's game.

So perhaps it's best to end with the words of 1962's ultimate failure, a politician whose career was obviously over. He was a man who had once aspired to the presidency but suffered a narrow loss two years earlier. Now he had just been trounced in a race for governor, and as he addressed a roomful of journalists in a tense, barely controlled fury.

"I leave you gentlemen now and you will now write it," the politician said. "You will interpret it. That's your right. But as I leave you I want you to know -- just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."

Wonder what happened to that guy.

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