When Jack Paar died
last month, local and national media outlets dutifully took note. After
first explaining to anyone under fifty exactly who the devil Jack Paar was,
the anchor then intoned a brief summary of the television pioneer’s life,
accompanied by grainy black-and-white footage of Paar behind the Tonight
Show desk. There he held court, conversing with the show folk and politicos
of mid-century America, the originator of a broadcast genre that survives
to this day. Saint Jack, patron saint of talk shows; the sire of Carson,
Letterman and Leno. Surely, such a passing was justly noted.
And yet, what struck this viewer (one with only the faintest memory of Paar
in his prime) wasn’t the bonhomie and easy elegance captured in these video
artifacts. It wasn’t even the fact that everyone smoked cigarettes!
No, what struck this viewer was how other-worldly it all seemed. I could
have been Howard Carter standing thunderstruck before the entrance to King
Tut’s tomb. For here, as palpable as a shard of Old Kingdom pottery, was
evidence of a long-gone culture, or, perhaps more accurately, the same culture
just prior to a sea-change.
You know the sea-change; they call it “The Sixties.” But let’s not confuse
“The Sixties" with a particular decade. According to most scholars of that
era, “The Sixties” commenced one bloody afternoon in Dealey Plaza and
concluded only when the last helicopter took off from the roof of the
U.S. embassy in Saigon. But that definition is too pat and too confining
given the enormous impact “The Sixties” continues to exert upon society.
And the scholars are quite mistaken in thinking it primarily a political
phenomenon, for “The Sixties” inform every aspect of our culture. From our
religious beliefs and customs to our notions regarding education, public
discourse, fashion, child-rearing and sexual conduct, “The Sixties” has entered
the groundwater of the body politic. And it will not, I’m afraid, be
disgorged until the coming of another sea-change in some far-off yet-to-come.
But let’s turn our attention for a moment to the antiquity in question; the
Paar video clips. As is true of the best documentary evidence, it may
provide a clue as to where we now stand and how we got here.
Notice how the people dressed; so formal! The men wore suits and ties, the
ladies dresses. Not one pierced body part or tattoo to be seen. The final
whimper of an age when being well-groomed and decorous revealed character.
When good breeding mattered. The tribal urge we see all around us today was,
in that older time, something to be found only between the covers of National Geographic.
And what have we here? Paar deep in conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt (discussing
The Four Freedoms or some such UN- related matter, no doubt). Ever
the consummate host, he gently coaxes answers from the octogenarian, respectful
of her age and her reputation. And despite the oh-so-heavy subject matter,
the mood remains light and breezy. While our ancestors could and often did
enjoy a good laugh, it was seldom at someone else’s expense. One can only
imagine what Letterman might have done with the old girl. After grilling
her about her love life with Franklin (and, of course, the rumors about Lorena
Hickok) he could have sent her for carryout from the little deli down the
street. Eureka, another clue uncovered! In olden days, maturity was sought
after and honored by anyone over the age of twenty-two or so. And there always
remained that bedrock, that unspoken acknowledgment that, yes, we are adults
and we will comport ourselves in such a fashion.
Moving right along, two quick clips: one of JFK in conversation, another
of Nixon. The year is 1960 and each candidate is using the show as a forum
to advance his platform and to charm the national television audience. A
bit self-aggrandizing to be sure, but a tad more substantive than Howard
Dean or John Edwards reciting Dave’s Top Ten List. This was an era when television
networks assumed a level of sophistication among their viewership. Such a
wildly popular mass entertainment could maintain its decisive ratings edge
while, at the same time, keeping the level of discourse somewhat more elevated
than that of a boys’ high school locker room. A brief glance at Paar’s guest
list from the period includes the usual suspects from Hollywood but, in addition,
(the Tonight Show originated from New York in those days) a cornucopia of
writers, musicians, academics and raconteurs. As a child, I had little idea
what Peter Ustinov or Oscar Levant was saying, but I understood that it was
something very special. And that someday I might be a grown-up and sip from
the cup of grown-up things.
In 1961, just at the time of Paar’s greatest popularity, our nation’s young
president spoke of a torch being passed, and one can only reflect back on
the delicious, if unintended, irony contained in that statement. For what
we have borne witness to over the last forty years is the triumph of mediocrity,
the leveling tendency of democracy so feared by the Founders. As that prescient
pickle-puss John Adams warned us two hundred years ago, “democracy never
lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was
a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Indeed, the torch has been passed and the sea-change effected. And today
we march, adolescents hand in hand, into our brave new world where anything
goes, proudly carrying the banner of “The Sixties.” Somewhere along the way
we traded in Eleanor Roosevelt for Paris Hilton, Peter Ustinov for
Justin Timberlake. But onward we march. And as seasons pass and memories
dim, well, it really doesn’t matter does it? After all, we’re all the same.
Peace and Love.
Massie is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in Chicago.
A child of "The Sixties," David rediscovered his own conservative roots post