Monday, December 1, 2008

Television & the Presidency as a Time Machine

I was sitting at home this past Saturday night, just flicking around the dial, when a newly produced special report on the Fox News Channel titled "Television & the Presidency" caught my eye. Being a bit of a history buff, especially American history, it was right up my alley: a historical perspective on the role that television has played in Presidential politics. As I settled in the program moved quickly through Jimmy Carter's lame Presidency in the late 1970's. Those Carter years were fresh in my own experience, since I turned 15 years old right after his election. Carter was basically the President of my high school years, and it wasn't pretty. The man was supposed to be some kind of genius. At least that was how the press sold him. But he just couldn't seem to solve any of the big problems that came along, from the gas crisis to unemployment to ballooning interest rates to the emergence of radical islam. Every time a problem raised it's head, Carter talked and talked and got nothing done to solve it. At least that was my perspective as a teenager, but what did I know? And besides, it didn't matter, I didn't have a vote...yet. In the fall of 1979, among the many other changes happening in my life, I turned 18 years old and had finally reached the age where I could register to vote. My family was historically a Democratic one, and the Party seemed to easily fit the liberal ideals that most appropriately espoused my own philosophy at the time, so I registered Democrat. As Carter continued to stumble and falter, I looked to 'Camelot' for my own and my new Party's salvation. I had been a Kennedy fan ever since learning in my youth that I shared my birthday with Bobby Kennedy. I did reading during high school on JFK and Bobby, and was among those convinced at the time that there was obviously a conspiracy in Dallas, and that the Warren Commission was a sham. In my first election, the Pennsylvania primary of May 1980, the presumed heir to the Kennedy crown stepped up to challenge President Carter, and I jumped on board the 'Teddy Kennedy for President' express. That spring, Kennedy came to Philadelphia to accept the endorsement of Mayor Bill Green. I had just started working for First Pennsylvania Bank about eight months earlier, and Kennedy's speech was going to be given right outside my doors at 15th & Chestnut Streets. I remember very clearly looking down from our 7th floor windows in the 1500 Chestnut building. You could see the 'rooftop' security activity, but no one was telling us to stay away from the windows in those days. At some point I slipped out of work and made my way down to try and get a glimpse of my new (first) political hero. Much to my amazement, I was able to get within a few feet at the rear of the makeshift stand that had been setup from which Senator Kennedy would speak. I remember it pretty clearly, but I am quite sure that in the haze of the ensuing 28 years, I have probably messed up a few details. But that's how I recall that day. I remember that I never actually got a chance to see Kennedy, though I was probably no more than 15 feet from him. Being in the rear of the stage, and with other security and dignitaries between myself and others, with Kennedy speaking at the front, all I could do was stand and listen, which I did. Oh, and a couple other things that I know. I had longer hair then, actually parted in the middle with the 'wings' that were still in style. I was wearing a white dress shirt with the wide collar, had left the top shirt button unbuttoned, had a greyish tie loosened, and was wearing the vest from a grey 3-piece suit without the jacket. How do I know all that, you say? Because as the Fox special progressed through to Kennedy's challenge of Carter, they showed a snippet from that very speech that he gave that day in Philly. And very quickly, but lasting 3-4 full seconds, there was a closeup of an 18-year old Matt Veasey standing in the back of the stage, eyes glazed over as he listened to Kennedy speaking. I mean, it was crystal clear, closeup, and they held the camera on me long enough for me to say "Holy crap!" as I sat in my living room 28 years later. Thankfully, the television experts have invented DVR, and I quickly rewound the program to watch again. There I was staring back in time at myself almost three decades ago, still a teenager, less than a year out of high school, my eldest daughter just a couple of months old. It was eerie, partly because it was totally unexpected, partly because the shot was a good one, partly because I haven't seen that face much in decades. I don't know of any video, family or otherwise, that exists of me from those days. I don't actually even have many photos from that time, at least not in my possession. But there I was, live and in person, at least on tape, from spring of 1980. I ran upstairs and got my wife Debbie, who didn't know me back then, and asked her to come downstairs and watch the show for a minute. I had it cued up to just before my appearance, and gave her the buildup describing what the show was about and where we were in the episode, and then asked her to watch close and see if anything catches her eye. She watched and let the shot of me go by, and just as I flickered off the screen she looked at me wide-eyed and asked "was that you?" in an incredulous tone. We watched it together a few more times and shared the amazement with a good laugh as I caught her up on some of the things that were happening in my life at that point. So if you get a chance to see this "Television & the Presidency" special on Fox News Channel, stay tuned for the episode and section where they cover Jimmy Carter. As they move to the Kennedy 1980 primary challenge, they will show the Philly speech, and as Kennedy laments that we want "no more high taxes, no more hostages" or whatever his rant was, you will see a starry-eyed young liberal in the audience. That young man was me once. It was good to see me again.

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