After the 2016 election, I was deeply shaken not just by the outcome, but by the terrifying sense that I did not understand the nation as well as I’d thought I did. To blunt the shock, I went on a bender through American history. I dove into books about the Civil War, the Progressive era and, finally, Robert Caro’s titanic biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, where I washed up on the shores of the turbulent 1960s.
I discovered something amazing: After 1960, much of history as many Americans experienced it — through popular culture on TV, on the radio and at the movies — is preserved and easily accessible online. With a few clicks around YouTube, history leaps into the present, often in ways that deepen and complicate the narrative.
For instance, Caro ably describes Johnson’s stirring first presidential address to Congress. It was five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the new president pressed lawmakers to pass civil rights legislation in Kennedy’s honor. “Everywhere you looked, people were crying,” the journalist Hugh Sidey wrote.
Watching the speech is something else. “All I have I would have given gladly not to be standing here today,” Johnson begins, and the hairs on the back of your neck tingle. You feel the weight of the hushed chamber and Johnson’s labored delivery. And then, the trauma that enveloped the audience is transformed, over the 24-minute address, into cheering determination, even hope.
That was the speech that hooked me, and soon I found myself living a second life in the past. I’d spend my days as a journalist covering the raucous present; but on and off over the last few years, on nights and weekends and vacations, I’d jump into my digital DeLorean and take up residence in earlier times — making my way, slowly, through the 1960s and then the ’70s, accompanied by an unending library of historical documents and pop cultural artifacts I found online.
It is a project I commend you to try. Go live for a bit in another, far-off decade, and I promise it will give you fresh perspective on a present as nutty as ours.
Doing so will take a bit of work. Although the internet contains uncountable historical treasures, its most-used services tend to constrict our focus to the instantaneous ever-present. Every moment on social media offers up a deluge of novelty; news is always breaking, memes always trending, hot takes never not taken.
The Trump years, especially, have been marked by a barrage of events so overwhelming that each new day seems to scramble every day that preceded it. We are all Dory, Nemo’s forgetful fish friend, so unsettled by the present that we forge — I’m sorry, my pocket just buzzed, what was I saying?
Right. To visit the past online, you need to deliberately seek it out. My method was straightforward; I began by reading. In addition to Caro’s Johnson biography, the historian Rick Perlstein’s excellent books on the rise of modern conservatism — which take readers from Barry Goldwater through the treacheries of Richard Nixon to, in the latest volume, the political era dominated by Ronald Reagan — are a perfect place to start.
Then, as you read, seek out videos online. Among other things, you will find the chilling news coverage of Johnson arriving at Andrews Air Force Base after the assassination. There’s Johnson’s 1965 speech introducing the Voting Rights Act, in which he invoked the anthem “We Shall Overcome,” a speech that made Martin Luther King Jr. cry. You will find King’s own thundering speeches — not just the most famous one, but also many others worthy of your time, including the last one he gave.
You see Malcolm X parrying with derisive reporters (“What is your real name?”). There’s news coverage of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as delegates cheer inside and riots erupt outside. Here is Walter Cronkite telling Americans the truth about the war in Vietnam, which pushed Johnson not to run for reelection. By the time you get to Nixon, you are overwhelmed with video — from his slick 1968 campaign ads to the dramatic trip to China to the endless hours of content related to Watergate.
Sure, there are easier ways to understand Watergate. “Slow Burn,” the Slate podcast that documented Nixon’s downfall, may be a better use of your time than watching every minute of the investigation. But the magic of the internet is how it collapses time; you can listen to a documentary produced in 2017 about a break-in in 1972, and then, if you want to fall in even further, you can watch testimony in the Senate’s 1973 Watergate hearings as if it were just unfolding.
There’s unexpected value in consulting the originals. “One of the things I tried to get across was the extraordinarily high level of civic commitment that the public showed in following these things, because it was complicated and slow,” Perlstein said of Watergate. After watching long stretches of Senate hearings in the background while I cooked or cleaned the kitchen, I understood what he meant.
The Trump era has drawn numerous comparisons to the 1960s and early ’70s. Both periods have had protests, riots, police brutality, political turmoil and corruption, and endless war. And both have been consumed by unsettled questions over race, gender and equality.
What has stood out to me is not the similarities in plot but the differences in presentation. Watching TV news from the past is jarring and refreshing. A lot of it is outmoded — this is the news as seen through the eyes of old white men — but there are aspects to coverage from the past that I felt myself pining for in the present.
When broadcast news was tightly controlled by three TV networks, there was an antiquated formality to the spectacle. I marveled at the tone of the presidential news conferences from the time.
The basic grammar of political media was different from what we see today: The questions were longer and more complex, the answers more detailed and nuanced. Even under a president as mendacious as Nixon, the political universe was still bounded by a shared sense of reality. Facts mattered, and documentary evidence had weight. If a politician said something today that contradicted what he (or, rarely, she) said yesterday, or there were recordings of a president disclosing something in private that undermined what he’d said in public, the inconsistencies were considered damning.
Broadcast news, which the TV networks offered as public service, also had little room for cheap punditry and outrage in search of profits. As a result, the coverage was more serious than anything on the dial today — no shouting talking heads, no montages of precisely edited sound bites, nothing engineered to drive you to share with your million friends. But because broadcast news was the only game in town, it was also more trustworthy, and more influential — perhaps explaining why both Johnson’s and Nixon’s presidencies ultimately collapsed under the weight of their own distortions.
In the fishbowl of 2020, where the news is fragmented and none of us can remember yesterday, we are not at all so lucky.