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The year it all came apart

'The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964: The Beginning of the Sixties'
by Jon Margolis

William Morrow & Co., $25

Review by L.D. Meagher

April 27, 1999
Web posted at: 4:04 p.m. EDT (2004 GMT)

(CNN) -- "It was the year of the Beatles," Paul Simon once wrote, "the year of the Stones, the year after JFK."

It was a year that, to outward appearances, seemed like the decade or so that preceded it. But beneath that placid surface, the United States was changing in ways most Americans couldn't recognize or begin to understand. It was 1964, and the '60s were about to begin.

Former Chicago Tribune political reporter Jon Margolis recalls the events of that unique year with sparkling clarity and a wry understanding of the way they led to the world we see today. "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964: The Beginning of the 'Sixties'" opens, appropriately enough, in the hours after John F. Kennedy was slain in November 1963.

It ends 12 months later, with the election of Lyndon Johnson to a full term as President of the United States. The 1960s, Margolis asserts, didn't begin with the calendar on January 1, 1960. They began that day in Dallas, when the shimmering image of the Kennedy Camelot was shattered by gunfire.

"One of the enduring images of those four days of mourning," he writes, "had been a sign posted outside a New York City newsstand that said, 'Closed because of a death in the American family.' On both counts, the newsie had had it right. There had been a death -- a murder -- but for all its horror, that murder had demonstrated the reality, and the resilience, of the American family."

In the wake of such tragedy, how could Americans still be considered "innocent"? Margolis uses the term in a very specific way. Despite the divisions in the country -- between left and right, young and old, rich and poor, white and black -- most Americans felt secure in the knowledge that they knew how the society was supposed to operate. Margolis calls it "the consensus." It was a set of societal and governmental assumptions most people would consider valid.

"The consensus," he writes, "was internationalist, integrationist, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Above all, it was rational." And in 1964, it was starting to come apart.

The signs of the unraveling were visible, if not widely recognized. Margolis chooses the effort to entice Senator Barry Goldwater into the Republican Presidential campaign as an example. The move had an air of insurrection. Those behind it, notably conservative activist F. Clinton White, saw themselves as revolutionaries, storming the battlements of the establishment. As it became more likely to succeed, the Goldwater movement marched ever farther from the confines of the consensus. It even left its progenitors behind. "Revolutions, it's said, eat their young," Margolis trenchantly observes, "but Barry Goldwater's may have been the first to eat its father."

Not that the Democrats were having a much easier time of it. Throughout 1964, Johnson repeatedly expressed no interest in seeking the presidency in his own right. Robert F. Kennedy struggled to understand the legacy of his slain brother and to find his own role in carrying that legacy forward. A deep mistrust drove a wedge between the younger Kennedy and Johnson, who had every reason to become allies. They ended up bitter rivals.

The cracks in the consensus spread and multiplied. As Congress debated the Civil Rights Act, the bodies of three murdered civil rights leaders were being unearthed in Mississippi. The 1964 fall television season was a lightweight froth of new comedies like "Gilligan's Island" and "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." spiced up by a drama called "Peyton Place."

When the year began, crooner Andy Williams was a mainstay on every radio station. By mid-year, he'd been supplanted by four lads from Liverpool who pumped out cheeky love songs with an infectious beat. Their popularity was documented in, and inflated by, a low-budget movie. "A Hard Day's Night" promptly shoved the latest Technicolor Elvis Presley pabulum off the box office lists.

And without much fanfare, Congress approved a measure known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, granting the President authority to conduct an undeclared war in a place called Vietnam.

With his reporter's eye for detail and the benefit of historic perspective, Margolis delivers "The Last Innocent Year" as a lively narrative, a tall tale no fiction writer would dare dream up. The characters are vivid and manifold -- Cassius Clay, Bobby Baker, Bob Dylan, Hubert Humphrey, Dr. Kildare and Dr. Strangelove.

Even those of us who lived through the '60s sometimes have trouble understanding them. "The Last Innocent Year" helps make sense of our memories. It can also help explain those times to people who know them only as some tangled threads in the American tapestry.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.


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