Commentary

From Ike to insurrection and beyond: The class of ’70 turns 70

We grew up in the televised world. Now we live in the wired world.

March 2, 2022 1:39 pm

A montage features members of the Class of ’70 in the Herington High School Yearbook of 1970. (Dave Kendall)

This commentary originally appeared in the Kansas Reflector.

For those of us who graduated high school in 1970, 2022 brings us to a significant milestone in our lives — many of us turn 70 this year. Born in 1952, we don’t just recall a number of events that have shaped our lives …

We’re also part of the first generation to see them televised.

I was born on the day of the first broadcast of the “Today” show on NBC. Watching an excerpt from that broadcast, we see host Dave Garroway introducing viewers to the latest marvels in live, electronic communications and to what he called “the beginning of a new kind of television.”

Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952, remaining in office for two full terms. Kansans were proud to have their man from Abilene in the Oval Office. He’d played a key role in the war against fascism, and his popularity as a war hero followed him as he presided over the expansion of consumer culture.

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As Eisenhower’s time in office was expiring, the campaign for his successor heated up. This was the first presidential election I can recall: Nixon versus Kennedy. We watched them debate on TV — the first such debate to be televised — Nixon sweating under the hot lights while his opponent appeared cool and calm.

Kennedy won that election, of course, noting at his inauguration that “the torch has been passed to a new generation.”

Just three years later, when we were in the sixth grade, it felt as though the sky had collapsed as our classes were interrupted by an announcement over the school’s PA system. President Kennedy had been shot. It was a bolt out of the blue, stunning and hard to grasp. Our vibrant young leader was dead.

For several days, we watched on television as events unfolded following the assassination. We were shocked again as we witnessed a man lunge forward past news cameras to shoot the alleged assassin as he was escorted through the parking garage of the Dallas police station.

We joined the whole nation in mourning as we continued to view the events on TV — the state funeral with the young widow in a black dress walking down the steps of the Capitol hand-in-hand with her two young children; the black, riderless horse in the military procession following the flag-draped casket through somber crowds. Onlookers wiped away tears.

President John F. Kennedy’s family leaves U.S. Capitol after his funeral. (Abbie Rowe/White House)

Most of the time since JFK’s assassination, it seems we’ve been split in two as a nation. The latter half of the 1960s brings to mind the phrase “America, Love It or Leave It,” as confrontations over our involvement in southeast Asia intensified.

Although much of our focus as teenagers remained on schoolwork, socializing and sports, we could not ignore the escalating conflict in Vietnam. Images of intense firefights in dense, jungle-like settings and of wounded soldiers being carried to waiting helicopters came into our homes every day with the evening news.

There were more shocking assassinations. First, Martin Luther King Jr., struck by a bullet from a hunting rifle the day after delivering his speech envisioning “the promised land.” And then, a couple of months later, Bobby Kennedy, shot at close range while campaigning for president.

I remember how our Methodist minister, Pastor Max, built a Sunday sermon around a song we’d been hearing on the radio — “Abraham, Martin and John” — in his attempt to provide comfort and solace, especially for the younger members of the congregation. “The good they die young” became the refrain that resonated.

Less than two years later, shortly before we reached the end of our senior year, my classmates and I were once again reminded of that. We learned about the death of a young man not much older than us, the third son of a large and prominent local family killed when the helicopter he piloted crashed in Vietnam.

About the same time, we heard the news about the death of four college students at Kent State, shot by members of the Ohio National Guard as they engaged in a campus protest against the war.

It was a conflicted, confusing and contentious time for the entire nation, and especially challenging for those of us who were preparing to head out into the world on our own.

Civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd of approximately 7,000 people on May 17, 1967, at UC Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, California. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The class of 1970 really came of age in the ’70s. We went off in different directions after high school, most of us leaving our small town behind. Some joined the military, while others went on to college or found a job.

Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1968 and reelected in 1972. But his reelection had been aided by a break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Office Building. That burglary and the coverup associated with it prompted a congressional investigation.

Televised hearings exploring the extent of the illegal activities and the president’s knowledge of them captivated the nation’s attention from May to November of 1973.

Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) posed the most pivotal question of the Watergate hearings: “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

It was astounding to see Nixon resign in August of 1974. Watching him step on to the presidential helicopter for the last time, many of us breathed a sigh of relief as he flew off into history. Our system of checks and balances had functioned as it was intended, and the president responded accordingly when it became clear he had lost legitimacy as well as the support of his party.

Twenty-five years later, Baker came to K-State to give an address in the Landon Lecture Series. He was married to Alf Landon’s daughter, Nancy Kassebaum, who had served three terms representing Kansas in the U.S. Senate. He provided a list of qualities that he considered to be essential in “a good president.” 

The first item on his list was, quite simply, honesty. A good president needs to speak the truth.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker and Howard Baker pose with Laura and George W. Bush in 2002. (White House)

As the class of 1970 reaches the age of 70, we’re faced with a situation that brings Richard Nixon and the Watergate hearings to mind.

Once again, we have witnessed a president abuse the power of his office and engage in what some consider to be criminal and seditious activities, putting his own personal interests above those of the nation.

It appears we are again about to witness proceedings of a congressional investigation on TV. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, which has been gathering information for the past few months, has indicated it may soon begin conducting televised public hearings.

Unlike the Watergate hearings, however, both major political parties are not fully committed to this undertaking. The Republican leadership has chosen to characterize the panel as illegitimate, depicting the investigation as a “partisan political weapon” and rejecting the committee’s request to participate.

The two Republicans on the nine-member committee are being treated as outcasts by their party, with some calling for them to be stripped of their party affiliation.

What has happened to the Republican Party? Would it ostracize Baker if he were alive today, asking questions intended to get at the truth of the matter at hand?

I watched the live coverage of events as they unfolded at the U.S. Capitol that day. It was not a total surprise because I had seen the tweet issued previously by the man who claimed the election had been stolen from him: “Be there, will be wild!”

It seemed clear that something out of the ordinary would happen, though I did not expect the violence that erupted. It was most certainly not a “peaceful protest” as Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and others have portrayed it

Pro-Trump extremists breach security at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Alex Kent for Tennessee Lookout)

Back in the 1950s, another senator from Wisconsin grabbed the spotlight as he spearheaded efforts to, ostensibly, root out communists and “communist sympathizers” in government and industry. Sen. Joseph McCarthy caused many to lose their livelihoods through extended congressional hearings investigating “un-American” activities.

We now refer to “McCarthyism” as a shameful approach involving the persecution of innocent people, whipping up baseless fear and paranoia in the pursuit of political power. McCarthy, who’s been described as a bully and a demagogue, eventually collapsed when confronted — on live, national television — with a direct question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Why does today’s Republican Party, in response to the actions of a similar type of bully who frequently demeans anyone who opposes him, persist in perpetuating lies about what happened in the 2020 election? There is no evidence to support the claim that the election was stolen. In fact, the federal agency responsible for election security has called it “the most secure in American history.”

Early in his tenure, our former president, when angered by his own attorney general’s refusal to break the rules of the Justice Department, expressed frustration with the question: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” What did he mean by that? Who’s Roy Cohn?

Cohn was McCarthy’s right-hand man. The young lawyer dug up dirt and interrogated witnesses during the hearings. He was directly involved in that exchange in which McCarthy’s lack of decency was finally exposed.

But while McCarthy’s conduct was condemned by the Senate and his life spiraled to an early death, Cohn went on to become a prominent attorney in New York City. Fred Trump and his son Donald were among those he represented. Cohn became a mentor for the son, teaching him to never admit a mistake or to losing in any situation.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin sits with future Trump mentor Roy Cohn. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division)

So now we have a former President who refuses to acknowledge defeat and continues to perpetuate lies and false narratives. He has convinced his “base” that the election was rigged, and he continues to demand personal loyalty, threatening any party member who fails to conform.

Many of us are extremely concerned about the impact this is having on our democracy as one of our major parties loses its integrity in deference to the demands of a demagogue. Dishonesty about voter fraud and “rigged elections” continues to undermine faith in our electoral process even as state legislatures use it as a pretext to enact laws that restrict access to the vote and give themselves greater control over the outcome

The violence we witnessed on Jan. 6, 2021, was provoked by lies, distortions and disinformation. We have seen other acts of violence in the past that grew out of mistrust of the government. The bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City was carried out by an alienated militant who expected it to launch a revolution.

That bombing stunned me and my classmates almost as much as JFK’s assassination. The two men deemed responsible had slipped into quiet lives in our own hometown as they gathered their explosives and packed them into the rental truck that was detonated at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, taking the lives of 168 people, many of them children.

When trust in the government erodes and people feel alienated, this is what can happen.

We are presently witnessing what happens when an authoritarian leader chooses to deceive his own people and defy international protocols to launch an unprovoked attack on another nation. Most of us are horrified, outraged and saddened by Vladimir Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine, while the man who vigorously denied being “Putin’s puppet” persists in his praise for the dictator’s “savvy” maneuvers.

As we totter on the brink of a wider war involving America and our NATO allies, we have already entered a new era that Thomas Friedman refers to as “World War Wired.” The stark, war-zone imagery previously brought to us primarily through broadcast television has been intensified by social media, which delivers first-person cell phone video on multiple platforms taking us directly into the lives of those caught up in the conflict. It also gives each of us the means to join the resistance to autocracy at home as well as abroad, voicing our support for democracy and encouraging our leaders to “do the right thing.”

Our world will never be the same.

The first-grade students in Miss Luthi’s class at Herington Elementary for the 1958-59 school year look out on us from more than 60 years ago. (Dave Kendall)

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Dave Kendall
Dave Kendall

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons. He also produced documentaries and community affairs programs for KTWU, the PBS station licensed to Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. In 2015, he left to form his own company — Prairie Hollow Productions — through which he continues to produce documentary videos. “The Road to Santa Fe: A Convergence of Cultures” is being distributed to PBS stations across the U.S. and is made available for use in schools. The production has received an award of merit from the Santa Fe Trail Association.

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