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Jack Paar and the Decline of the West
by David Massie
11 February 2004Jack Paar

Somewhere along the way we traded in Eleanor Roosevelt  for Paris Hilton, Peter Ustinov for Justin Timberlake.

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.

David Massie is a freelance writer and communications consultant living in Chicago. A child of "The Sixties," David rediscovered his own conservative roots post 9/11.

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