The 1968 Exhibit: Covering 1968 - August, 2009

Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 1968, LIFE magazine

life-czechForty-one years ago: *the Soviets' crushing of the "Prague Spring," the "brave rebirth of national pride and expectation"

Forty-one years ago today, LIFE published an extraordinary 19-page story, with the magazine's vivid trademark photographs, on the crushing of the "Prague Spring," the Czechoslovakian experiment with openness and Socialist liberalism that LIFE called a "brief idyl of liberation, the brave rebirth of national pride and expectation." The invasion of Czechoslovakia by nearly 5,000 Soviet tanks and 165,000 troops (along with forces from four other Soviet-bloc countries) had begun 10 days earlier, on Tuesday, August 20th. *The invaders were met by thousands of mostly youthful street-protesters, and though the confrontations turned violent--thirty-eight protesters were killed--there was no massive or official retaliation.

Meanwhile, in Chicago....

Halfway around the world, in Chicago, thousands of politicians and protesters were beginning to gather in anticipation of the Democratic Party's national nominating convention. *And the events in Czechoslovakia weighed very heavily on both sides. *Senator George McGovern, a trailing candidate for the nomination that would eventually be won by Hubert Humphrey, lashed out at the Johnson administration, saying it must "bear a considerable part of the blame of the Soviet Union's military takeover of Czechoslovakia." *McGovern's and others' efforts to obtain an antiwar plank in the party's platform were crumbling in the face of the Soviet actions. * The story in Czechoslovakia was, in America, refracted through the lens of the ongoing American debacle in Vietnam. McGovern spoke for many when he said: "You cannot justify intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that our security is threatened by a government 10,000 miles away without inviting the Russians to intervene because they feel threatened by a government on their own border." (NYT 8/24/68).

Czechoslovakia and Vietnam: a 1968 linkage

In a lengthy editorial in this issue of LIFE, Thomas Griffith also made the linkage between the Soviet invasion and the war in Vietnam, especially the effect of the invasion on American politicians' constantly shifting stances on the war. *"In the past year, this nation has undergone a remarkable swing of opinion about the war in Vietnam--so much so that names like hawk and dove no longer fit. *The longing to get out is widespread, and peace with honor the common cry." *Still, the "tanks of Prague" made it much less likely that Americans would look favorably on an end to the Vietnam war that entailed substantial concessions to the Communist North.

Covering Prague in 1968

The convergence of events in Prague and Chicago would have another, unexpected result in the way that 1968 was "covered." *As reported by New York Times TV critic Jack Gould on August 23, 1968, The CBS Evening News expanded the night before from a half hour (it had been a 15-minute show only 5 years earlier) to a full hour "because of the heavy volume of news," and said that the format afforded "a less hurried presentation of the day's developments,"*and lessened "the need for the compression of stories into cryptic bulletins." *Walter Cronkite presided over an hour of news that focused in its first half on Czechoslovakia and world reaction, and in the 2nd half to developments at the DNC in Chicago, as well as to stories from Vietnam and Bogot.*(a visit by Pope Paul VI). "Easing the tyranny of time that always hangs so heavily over electronic journalists might have interesting and fruitful consequences," Gould concluded. *The expansion of the nightly news to a full hour did not last, but exactly a month later, CBS would launch a one-hour news program called

Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In," LP album, 1968

Rowan & Martin's Laugh In Album Cover "Laugh-In." *All by itself, the word conjures a cascade of 1960s images and memories.

Even more specifically, this incredibly popular television show has for decades been a stand-in for 1968-- or perhaps better, "1968": the pervasive mythologizing of the Sixties' most notorious single year, a required clip in every "Sixties montage" (or even lampoons of "Sixties montages," as can be seen on The Simpsons.)

1968's Top-Rated TV Show

Conveniently launching at the beginning of the year (January 22) as NBC's mid-season replacement for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.--the spy-caper series that had run out of steam--Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In soon rocketed to the top of the ratings charts and stayed there for the rest of the season and again for the next (1968-69). (Amazingly, two other shows--both on CBS--that overlapped with Laugh-In on Monday nights were also in the top ten that year: *Gunsmoke and Here's Lucy.)

"Revolutionary"? *Maybe not.

With its vibrant, pulsating colors; the raunchy or topical joke-making; the blindingly quick cuts (over 300 separate segments in each one-hour show, according to Steven Stark's 1997 book,*Glued to the Set), Laugh-In certainly looked and*sounded revolutionary and transgressive, at least on the surface. *But down deep (if that's not an oxymoron in this context), it adhered to formulas familiar to anyone who had been watching TV since its Milton Berle beginnings 20 years earlier. *It was a variety show, with a strong stock company of players (Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin being the show's most famous alumnae); a pair of urbane, tuxedoed hosts; musical acts (the "psychedelic" band Strawberry Alarm Clock appeared in the opening night's lineup); comic sketches that were long on slapstick and pratfalls; and a boatload of guest stars doing embarrassing things.

A record of zaniness Inside of Laugh In Album

In the absence of home VHS or DVDs, how were the producers going to keep the show's fans pumped up, beyond the expectation of summer re-runs? *This record album, issued as the show's first half-season ended, was one solution. The colorful cover features cut-outs with the show's stars peeping through--just like the trademark "Joke Wall" that ended every episode. **"Dan and Dick" (i.e., Rowan and Martin) provide the rationale, such as it is, for the album in the liner notes: *"Since we are constantly being stopped on the street by the people who tell us that 'Laugh-In' moves to fast they don't get all the jokes, we decided to put out this album to further confuse them. . . . Here, then, at last for home consumption is some of the madness for you to play and replay until you figure it out."

The 1960s were the heyday of comedy record albums--one only has to think of "The First Family," or Bill Cosby's records, or Bob Newhart's, or -- on the smuttier side-- the records put out by black comics Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx.  But a Laugh-In record?  Even the show's producer, George Schlatter, was quoted in a magazine interview that Laugh-In was "all visual. *You can listen to other TV shows and get the drift, but you have to watch this." *(Glued to the Set, p. 144) Do you have a favorite Laugh-In moment?

"EYE" magazine, September 1968

EYE magazine, September 1968

EYE magazine, where hipness met consumerism, was a brief candle amidst the flickering lights of the 1960s.

EYE magazine was a short-lived (15 issues, 1968-69) effort by the Hearst Corporation to cash on the exploding youth market in publishing (and, of course, in advertising profits). *The*rainbow logo, with its echoes of Peter Max and *"Op" art, gives you a hint right away. *Hearst was already publishing Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, and Harper's Bazaar-- and EYE, it seems, was largely meant for younger, female readers, to judge strictly by the advertising in this issue: *makeup, perfumes, hair products, more makeup, handbags, and a Wonder Bread ("Helps catch boys!") ad inside the back cover: *"Don't forget this: boys love to eat. And they love Wonder sandwiches.").

The Beatles--two of them, at least--and "Beautiful Persons."

This issue features counterculture superstar John Lennon, in an oddly unmemorable (not to mention poorly focused) photograph by Linda Eastman, already gaining a reputation for her portraits of rock musicians. *He and Paul McCartney had been in New York in May for a whirlwind visit in connection with the creation of Apple Corps, their new company. *Their "101 hours" in New York are chronicled by Lillian Roxon, the Australian journalist who would soon be publishing her "Rock Encyclopedia," a landmark in rock history. *Roxon was a Contributing Editor at Eye, and was responsible in this issue for two other pieces. *The first is a feature called "Elevator: People on the Way Up (and Down)," in which she calls the reader's attention to 27-year-old "Mike Cimino," who had just won the award for the World's Best Television Commercial (a spot for Eastman Kodak), and who had his eye set on doing something big in Hollywood. *(As Michael Cimino, he would direct The Deerhunter and win an Oscar in 1978). * The second is an embarrassing one-page sermon on "Cosmetics of the Soul," described as "the art of being as beautiful inside as outside. . . . Whatever you want to call it, it's what everyone wants to be these day. *A Beautiful Person."

Glitz, glamour, and guys with money

EYE was well known for its high-quality inserts: *foldout posters of celebrities, a record, a comic book (Spiderman). *In this issue, there are record reviews, a car review (the Bond-ish Lotus Europa), a fashion spread (fake furs, sexy models), an article about flying a glider, an interview with Jean-Luc Godard, an excerpt from Tom Wolfe's best-selling The Pump House Gang, an article about student radicals, and a gushing profile of four under-30 male entrepreneurial success stories, with the guys posing together in a bank vault: "Members of a generation in a hurry . . . not likely to stand still waiting for Success to happen."

The conquest of cool

Though it was a brief candle in the life of Sixties publishing, EYE might well stand as Exhibit A for the "rise of hip consumerism" so well documented by Thomas Frank in The Conquest of Cool (1997)--the rather rapid "discovery" that hipness and the counterculture were easily converted into commodities, and could be effective bandwagons for making money, even for corporations as historically identified with the conservative Establishment as Hearst.

Naomi Sims on Ladies' Home Journal, November 1968

lhj-naomi-sims1 One of the most famous covers of the 1960s:  the spectacular Naomi Sims appears on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal. In November 1968, Ladies' Home Journal-- "The Magazine Women Believe In"--featured  the first black "cover girl" in the history of this long-lived and influential magazine, the first, actually, on any "mainstream" (i.e., white) women's magazine.  The cover was in the news very recently, illustrating the New York Times obituary for Sims who died August 1, 2009, at the age of 61.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/04/fashion/04sims.html?_r=1 When she appeared on this cover in 1968, Sims was not an unknown: she had appeared the year before on the cover of a Times fashion supplement, and by the next year was seen nationwide in an AT&T ad campaign on television and in print.  But still, the LHJ cover was big news, coming toward the end of a turbulent year in American race relations. The Journal had been the most prestigious women's mag since the turn of the 20th century, far outpacing rivals McCall's, Redbook, and Women's Day, if not in circulation then certainly in cultural significance and influence. A complete woman And it's a great cover shot:  She's wearing a crocheted outfit--very much of the moment, but something that "even a beginner could finish in eight hours."   Sims' dark skin is amply revealed, and her long (5'10") body is curled up and perfectly fitting into the rectangular outline of the cover:  "This is a complete woman," the photo seems to say: "Black is Beautiful."  She was 21 years old. More than just a pretty face The LHJ editors knew what they were doing when they hired her.  She was not going to be just a mannequin for that crocheted ouftit, assigned the usual mute role for cover girls.  No, this was a Culturally Significant Moment, and the editors gave her not only the cover but a huge spread inside, and an "exclusive interview" with editor Diana Lurie.  The interview begins slowly, cruising around details about what's it's really like being a model, then it gets to the elephant in the room:  race.  "My mother felt that the Negro was inferior, and she lived in poor white neighborhood [in Pittsburgh].  In kindergarten, I can remember being the only Negro in an all-white school. . . I get questions all the time about being Negro.  I hate having to be made aware and always having to use my brain about being Negro.  After Martin Luther King's assassination, somebody said, 'Now you're really going to work, baby.' . . . Beauty does surpass prejudice at a point, yet sometimes the effort people are making to assimilate us seems contrived." Stereotypes don't go away overnight If Sims' cover appearance was history-making, the rest of the magazine seemed still to be treading the water of racial stereotypes.   African Americans appear in exactly two other places in the entire 200-page issue, both of them advertisements: An ad for Samsonite, in which a black luggage porter is helping a white damsel-in-distress at JFK Terminal; and an ad for Calgonite dishwasher detergent with the caption "The prettiest dishes in America use Calgonite," and 34 headshots of apparently "average" pretty American women (the "dishes" of the caption, one assumes), four of whom, remarkably, are black. lhj-breck-ad-nov682 And finally, how many people, I wonder, in 1968 noticed the stunning, almost perverse, contrast presented by the BACK cover of this historic issue of Ladies' Home Journal?  Here it is, without comment.

"Reader's Digest," April 1968

readersdigest-smaller-april-1968A virtual checklist of 1968 preoccupations: From Vietnam to urban violence to "The Pill" and why kids smoke pot: All "digested" and ready to read:  it's Reader's Digest.

Reader's Digest is one of the most durable institutions in American publishing. Founded in 1922, the magazine still claims to be the most widely read magazine in America, a claim that it has been able to make for decades.  Its formula for years was familiar, and was stated inside every month above the lead article:  "An article a day of enduring significance, in condensed permanent booklet form."  Reader's Digest (unlike National Geographic: see earlier "Covering 1968" post) was very much a part of my middle-class family's life in the 1950s and 60s, a virtually indispensable back-of-the-commode companion. Unlike today, Reader's Digest in 1968 was still being published monthly, so theoretically I had 12 possible choices to write about.   This April issue fell into my lap by chance, but it turns out to contain an especially impressive collection of stories, covering the waterfront of 1968 issues almost as if following a checklist:

  • Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower writes an original, copyrighted piece on the war in Vietnam and the protests against it. "In my long life of service to my country, I have never encountered a situation more depressing than the present spectacle of an America deeply divided over a war."  Predictably, he harkened back to World War II:  "Neither I nor any other military leader had to lie awake nights wondering whether the folks back home would stick with us to the end."
  • Pearl S. Buck--at the time the only American woman to hold the Nobel Prize in Literature--writes about "The Pill" (she doesn't mention the words "birth control"), which has a "potential effect on our society . . . even more devastating than the nuclear bomb."
  • "Hell Week in Vietnam," a condensation of Time magazine reporting on the Tet Offensive
  • A piece by arch-conservative RD editor William Schulz on Martin Luther King's planned "Poor People's Army"  march on Washington -- "a matter of grave concern."  He writes: "The nation faces international humiliation," and "Communism's worldwide propaganda apparatus is set for a field day."  (King had been assassinated on April 4, 1968, after this issue was printed.)  In a related article also printed here, "Is Insurrection Brewing in the United States?" the answer is "Yes, it is quite possible."
  • An article by "Anonymous" ("a recent college graduate") on "Why Students Turn to Drugs":  "The true 'pothead' may turn on with marijuana every evening.  Consciously or not, he has renounced the 'straight' world, divorcing himself from reality."

A couple of other observations: "The Wisdom of Wildness," by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, originally published a few months earlier in Life, is condensed and reprinted here.  Lindbergh was well into his years of self re-invention as an environmentalist and spokesman for conservation movements.  The environmental movement is more often associated with the 1970s, and with liberal politics.  Here it is, however, in the 1960s, and in one of the most politically conservative magazines on the market. I was once again surprised about the growing interest, to judge by the plethora of advertisements, in dieting and weight-loss products, such as Metrecal, Ayds, and Instant Breakfast--not a trend I expected to find in 1968.   (See my earlier post about 1968 bestsellers--Rod  McKuen poetry vying with diet books.) And 1968 appears to have also been the breakthrough year for color television, to judge by the number of ads.  (Statistics bear this out:  the percentage of U.S. households with color TVs went from just under 10 percent in 1966 to nearly 25 percent by the end of 1968, according to the comprehensive website, tvhistory.tv)