Voices from historic moments - and a prayer for America On Books

December 27, 1998|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

We live in a time when decent, right-thinking Americans have cause to celebrate the election of the new governor of Minnesota with a wan but fervent prayer: Grant us, oh Lord, that Jesse Ventura may elevate the expressed standards of America's political leadership to the integrity and dignity of professional wrestling.

If current news - especially the live voices of participants - pains you as it pains me, I suggest a new book: "We Interrupt This Broadcast," by Joe Garner (Sourcebooks, 154 pages, plus two compact audio discs, $45).

It's not the book, really, that's analgesic. It's the discs tucked in the back cover. But start with the book. It's big, almost a foot square, printed on good slick paper, with a preface by Walter Cronkite, who knows of what he writes.

There are 38 chapters - entries - beginning with "The Hindenburg Explodes" and ending with "Princess Diana Dies." In-between events range from merely significant to historically monumental.

Included are the farewell of the fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur, John Glenn's first space orbit. Most, however, are on the gravest extreme: assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon. There is the explosion of the Challenger, the fall of Saigon, the Waco bloodbath, Oklahoma City.

None is trivial. Lennon and Di are English, and a few other incidents are less than entirely American: Sputnik, the Munich Olympics bloodbath, collapse of the Berlin wall. But the bulk of the entries bring to life an America confronting threat, tragedy or fulfillment. An America that is resilient, dauntless and decent.

Some are less enduringly historic than others, but even those signify. Among them: the deaths of major folk icons - Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Garner, a veteran radio broadcaster and executive, writes good, clean, useful prose. Each chapter fills from two to six pages and most have at least a half-dozen pictures - many of them great, straight photojournalism. The words present factual background. The text neither condescends nor assumes detailed foreknowledge - it witnesses America being America - for moments at its worst, mostly at its finest.

But the discs are really the point of the exercise:

Bill Kurtis, a veteran of 30 years and more in broadcasting, most of it with CBS, gives an introduction to - "those four chilling words" - "A time capsule of the famous and infamous moments that stopped us in our tracks."

He narrates each segment and plays counterpoint with snippets of recordings from the break-in broadcasts. His texts are adaptations of the Garner chapters. Ironically, some of the most haunting moments of sound are the tag-ends of dialogue or musical phrases that immediately proceed many of the dramatic elements:

Dec. 7, 1941. There was a football playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The announcer was excited. 'He is down on the 27 yard line. The tackle was made by ...'" Then, a crackle and a new, crisp voice:

" 'We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash! Washington: The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Stay tuned..."

(Ultimately, the Dodgers won, 21 to 7; the Japanese lost 0 to 1.)

Not all of the historic bits are the first bulletin of the event. In some cases I can remember, there were far more dramatic words spoken and broadcast. Lee Harvey Oswald was fatally shot in full view of live television cameras, yet the report on this CD is a second-hand reading from a Mutual Broadcasting studio. Some original bulletins clearly were not preserved, others presumably were not available for this project. In many cases the original sounds on the discs are from the most dramatic explanatory first broadcast.

My quibbles identify a fault but not a fatal failing. Has the human voice ever spoken more historically than when Neil Armstrong first stepped on - and spoke from - the surface of the moon?

There are relatively few examples of the voices of the powerful and famous: dramatic highlights of conscientious addresses to history - President Truman, Douglas MacArthur. This is not a collection of great or historic speeches. For that, there is a number of quite marvelous collections from other publishers - just as there are other coffee-table picture histories and more ambitious brief contemporary history texts.

The focus here is that most of these events occurred unexpectedly. A main recurring theme is that America rose to meet them, healthily - celebratorily or sadly. but proud and firm.

The most dramatic elements, naturally, are events that broadcast reporters witnessed, were swept into: The Hindenburg explosion, the Waco/Branch Davidian horror. There is much drama here, a lot of real, dynamic stuff: The shooting of Robert Kennedy is live and more dramatic than anything that could possibly be imagined or contrived.

Taken as a whole, the two and a quarter hours of the two CDs deliver an exciting, engaging exercise in something that might fairly be called Catastrophe Lite. The events are all hugely memorable. The bits of historic sound are powerfully evocative.

But beneath the entertainment value, there emerges an America - over more than 60 years - that is a securely confident society, seen sometimes wounded but sure of its capacity to heal and to return to its essence.

Finally, among all the spoken words, it is the voice of a chief

participant, not of a broadcast reporter, that seems most dramatic today. It is that of Richard Nixon on Aug. 8, 1974:

"I have never been a quitter. To leave office before my term is completed is abhorrent to every instinct in my body. But as President I must put the interests of America first. America needs a full-time President, and a full-time Congress. ... Therefore I shall resign the Presidency effective at noon tomorrow."

Grant us, oh Lord.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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