Our country changed in many ways in 1964, according to Jon Margolis in his book The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964. He says there really was no innocence to lose, for there has always been a mean and selfish undercurrent in American culture, but it was the last year that our society could pretend that we were going happily working together to make a better world. Having read the book, I am not certain that he really supports this statement, but his book held my interest. I vaguely remember many of the events of that year - the first year that I remember dating my school papers.
Readers may be surprised to find that Margolis's year is not bound by the standard calendar concept of a year. He poses that 1964 really started on November 22, 1963 when President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. On that day Jacqueline Kennedy became a widow, Robert Kennedy became the head of his clan, Lyndon Johnson was sworn into the office of president, and Barry Goldwater nearly decided to drop the idea of running for president. Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace were clueless to the transitions that they were about to make. The stage was set for the decline of the Democratic Party, a shift in the power in the Republican Party, the passing of the Civil Rights Act, a backlash against civil rights, the start of the Women's Movement, the disillusionment of college students, and radicalization of many in all parties. And in winter the Beatles landed at the newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport in New York.
The central character is Lyndon Johnson. I was surprised to learn that he was only 55 years old when he was sworn in as president. I had always thought he was a really old man. Margolis portrays him sympathetically in the early chapters, but it seems that Johnson's good intentions declined as the months went by. He began to distrust his seemingly very loyal aides and long for approval from everyone he met. Robert Kennedy, on the other hand, seems to start low and improve as the book progresses. Most people profiled seem to have their strengths and weaknesses. The one person who seems to have no redeeming qualities is FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
I was also struck by how at the beginning of the presidential primary season, none of the major contenders had actually declared as a candidate. Few of the states had public primaries at the time, as caucuses of party regulars had control and often pledged their votes to "favorite son" candidates, who would later throw their votes to contenders in political deals made at the conventions. Johnson feared that his support would evaporate at the Democratic Convention, while the heavy-handed control exerted by the Goldwater forces to supress discussions during the Republican Convention played badly to the American public. Margolis's year ends with the election in November.
How winners can be losers and losers be eventual winners is the irony that Margolis explores in this fascinating book which will appeal to Baby Boomers and political history readers.
Margolis, Jon. The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964. William Morrow, 1999. ISBN 0688153232.