Sometime between my arrival at college over half a century ago and my departure four years later, the world shifted. It was impossible to miss and hard, as we would say today, to “process” how visions of a Great Society and a Second Reconstruction yielded riots and cultural revolution. America at the start of the Sixties looked the successful going concern. By the end it looked a shambles.
The public markers of the Sixties included omnibus civil rights legislation, invention of affirmative action and a war on poverty, race riots in northern cities, the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the chaos at the Democratic convention in Chicago, Nixon’s return, campuses in revolt, Kent State, the Cambodia bombing, and on and on. There were other markers too. A 1966 college scene of boys in button-downs, girls in Peter Pan collars, mixers, and parietals had become, by 1970, boys with hair like girls, girls without bras, open dorms, and faculty-led antiwar protests. Hardly anyone smiled anymore.
Most of the big-picture stuff came to us students, as it did to all Americans then, each weekday evening, courtesy of the then three television networks. At my college, this meant the half hour after dinner spent in a smoky student lounge, gaping at the single color set perched on a rickety metal stand. The crowd seemed pretty evenly divided between fans of Huntley-Brinkley (“Goodnight Chet; Goodnight David”) on NBC and Walter Cronkite (“And that’s the way it is this Thursday”) on CBS. For quality and quantity, the networks were pretty interchangeable, except for one thing that CBS had and the others didn’t: Eric Sevareid.
Once a week or so, Sevareid (1912–1992) wound up Cronkite’s show with a two-minute commentary. “Short essay” would be more accurate. He delivered it deadpan, seated at a desk, with hands on his papers—always in a gray suit and necktie and with a physiognomy that set a certain tone: hatchet face, gray hair, eyes that bored into the camera. He never cracked a smile. It may as well have been radio, which was where Sevareid got his start as one of Edward R. Murrow’s “Boys” reporting from Europe on World War II. He first won notice for scooping the Fall of Paris in June 1940. Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and the others were the first generation of anchormen-as-celebrities, whose job was to look both benign and somehow authoritative, speak captions beneath the evening’s pictures, and converse amiably with correspondents on the ground. Sevareid never became an anchor, however, which may be why it is possible to listen to him today more seriously than to his more famous colleagues. He did not do pictures but wrote and spoke sentences that commanded, not requested, the attention of his viewers—even slouchy undergraduates. He generally had something to say. By the standards of the commentariat then and now, he was a cut above.
One particular evening, he ended his piece by borrowing from Edmund Burke. This would have been sometime in 1968 or early 1969, a season with plenty of social upheaval to talk about. I suspect Sevareid was commenting on some instance of civil unrest or other misbehavior that warned of things lurching out of control. He quoted from Burke’s letter to a member of the French National Assembly in May 1791, when things were definitely lurching out of control over there. In it, Burke warned of civilized society’s non-negotiable need to control, by habit or by constitution, the will and appetite of its members: “It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Burke had the last word that evening. Sevareid did not say “Goodnight.”
It was, I confess, my first encounter with Burke. I scrawled down the passage and when I was back in the dorm I typed it out on an index card and tacked it up over my Olympia portable. Though I was then a run-of-the-mill college liberal who in a couple years would vote for McGovern, those words of Burke intoned by Sevareid nagged me then and for years to come. The card followed me around through life, long outlasting the typewriter, and the more Burke I consumed the more grateful I became for Sevareid’s solemn introduction.
Sevareid resurrected the same Burke quotation a few years later on the occasion of the Bicentennial and the reissue of his bestselling “autobiography” from 1946, Not So Wild A Dream. He wrote it during eight months in 1945 as the war was winding down, when he was all of thirty-three. It took him from his native North Dakota to Minneapolis, New York, London, Paris, the Far East, and home again. It is a serious memoir of the Depression and war years by a serious American, and at 220,000 words is still a consequential eyewitness resource. For the 1976 reissue he let the original text stand unchanged, adding only a few thoughts on how what he had learned about life then more or less lined up with what he still thought about it thirty years later. He was a journalist and it was not high philosophy, but it was practical and—in his experience—provable. “The good life for a person or a society,” he wrote mildly enough, “is not possible save in moderation.” This was where the twentieth century had come up conspicuously short, and he pulled no punches about the enduring symptom: the “politics of hysteria” and the pernicious labeling of human beings by group identity—“‘Bourgeois,’” “‘Hippie,’” “‘Imperialist.’” Labels reduce men to symbols that “do not bleed when pricked; his heart does not cry in the night.” Sevareid knew cant when he heard it: “By this conjuring trick, conscience is made to disappear.” So he returned to Burke and added something from his own contemporary, Eric Hoffer: “People in a hurry can neither grow nor decay; they are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.” It was another good pick.
The foreign correspondent Sevareid spent much of his professional life abroad and was attuned to America’s image and importance there. We weren’t perfect and sometimes had behaved as innocents who had done unintended harm. But, as he asked in the 1976 edition of Not So Wild A Dream, what “other great power has the confidence and stability to expose and face its own blunders?” The Sixties were barely history then, and Sevareid was old enough to remember the time before. He saw hope there, if just a sliver: “We are a turbulent society but a stable republic. The mind goes blank at the thought of a world without one such power.”
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
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