By Chris Matthews | September 29, 2014 | Culture
An exhibit of original Time magazine covers from the 1960s at the National Portrait Gallery is a cultural and visual journey through the “Age of Aquarius.”
An optimistic John F. Kennedy appeared on the June 9, 1961, issue, six months into his first term as president.
In the 1960s, Time magazine still commissioned portraits for its covers. They said to readers: this face, this event you see on the front of our magazine, will be remembered. It will matter always, just as it does now. Every moment of this tumultuous decade of history is chronicled visually in “Time Covers the 1960s,” an exhibit on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery through August 9, 2015.
Study the portrait of John F. Kennedy from the June 9, 1961 issue. Here (ABOVE) is the young president, fresh to the office, with the country’s flag at his back. His generation of junior officers who won WWII is now ready to lead. A new crispness bites at the air. JFK’s great rite of passage as president would come late in the next year, when he discovered that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had secretly placed offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba. After days of terrifying testing by both sides, an under-the-table deal was clasped. The US agreed to pull its missiles from Turkey if the USSR would do the same from Cuba. The agreement kept the world from an all-out nuclear war, even as it undercut Moscow’s devoted ally Fidel Castro.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appearance on Time’s January 3, 1964, cover as Man of the Year spotlights the historic March on Washington the preceding summer. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial, the civil rights champion gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. On that hot August afternoon, in front of the anxious, sweltering crowd, he rose as no one else had ever before or since.
Rare for a musician, folk singer Joan Baez appeared on the cover of Time in November 1962, the heyday of the American roots revival.
The assassination of President Kennedy that autumn, an unforgettable national moment, robbed the country of its celebrated confidence. After that gothic funeral in late November 1963 came the long hair, the protests, the folk music of Joan Baez (who had been a Time cover in November 1962) and others, and the battles between white and black, father and son. It was a time when the sunny spirit of the country went dark and uncertain.
Stirring the country, wildly if briefly, was the early 1964 arrival to America of The Beatles. At Holy Cross, our entire corridor crowded into the one room with a TV set to catch the Fabulous Four that wintry Sunday night on Ed Sullivan. Of greater portent, the quadrennial year also saw Congress pass the country-changing Civil Rights Act. It was President Lyndon Johnson’s greatest achievement, a partisan credit, too, to the strong majority of Senate Republicans led by Illinois’s Everett Dirksen.
Then came tragedy and irony: Within a year of the ’64 election, President Johnson, who had run as the “peace” candidate, escalated the war in Vietnam. Afraid to be the first American leader to lose a war, he raised the US troop level to 500,000. His downturned head on Time’s cover presaged the agony to come. Millions of Americans passed those troubled years of war abroad and unrest at home by enjoying a nightly party hosted by Johnny Carson, who graced Time’s cover in may of 1967. Carson made even the loneliest heart feel he or she had received a personal invitation.
Meanwhile, at the movies, something radical was happening. Warren Beatty’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate took the maverick’s side. Both somehow, without our saying so, were about Vietnam. Suddenly we found ourselves rooting not for “law and order” and the affluent society but for this gorgeous outlaw pair and this difficult, not particularly likable son of the nouveau riche.
By 1967, the climate became more ominous. Race riots struck Detroit and other cities—the terror of the riots was captured in an August 1967 Time cover. So did the “hippies” who challenged the get-ahead American way of life—both groups fueled by anger over young men being hauled off to Vietnam. Finally, there came the out-in-the-open electoral challenge. A minnesota senator named eugene mcCarthy came forth to challenge Lyndon Johnson’s renomination. Campus activists got their hair cut, getting “clean for Gene.” After mcCarthy gave Johnson a scare in New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy launched his own antiwar campaign for president.
The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in the spring of 1968, followed by the second Kennedy assassination in June, marked the emotional nadir of the decade. Yet despite this dual tragedy right in our face—captured on the 1968 Time cover by Roy Lichtenstein of a pistol pointed right at us—it could not dislodge the country from its dug-in gun culture.
Time’s iconic Neil Armstrong cover by Louis S. Glanzman for its July 25, 1969, issue.
Richard Nixon, narrowly defeated by Kennedy in 1960 and again for California governor in 1962, came back to pick up the decade’s pieces. His Time covers in 1968 and 1969 would count among his record 55 appearances there.
One of the decade’s last covers, of Neil Armstrong by Louis Glanzman, saluted the 1969 lunar landing, completing the bold mission young Jack Kennedy had envisioned at the decade’s outset. in a harrowing, violent decade, his Apollo space program, along with the Peace Corps, offered a light of hope. “Time covers the 1960s” at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, through August 9, 2015
IllustratIon by rené robert bouché courtesy of the natIonal PortraIt Gallery, smIthsonIan InstItutIon/GIft of Time maGazIne/© DenIse bouche fItch; louis s. glanzman courtesy of national Portrait gallery, smithsonian institution/gift of Time magazine/© louis glanzman (armstrong); russell hoban casein courtesy of national Portrait gallery, smithsonian institution/gift of Time magazine (baez); courtesy of Time magazine (mlK issue)
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