Life's demise is a sign of our Time

March 21, 2000|By Cal Thomas

TIME INC. has announced it will stop regular publication of Life magazine in May. In the future, Life will appear occasionally to mark "special events."

Suspended as a weekly in 1972, Life returned as a monthly publication in 1978. Born in 1936 out of Henry Luce's mind, Life was a regular guest in my childhood home and millions of others. Its photographs not only won top awards but remain embedded in the public mind.

Rather than attempt to appeal to a broad audience, as Life always did, Time's current bosses are emulating television by pursuing niche audiences. Editorial director Henry Muller says the 1978 reborn Life was "a magazine launched for nostalgic reasons." Not really. Nostalgia is defined as "a wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning for a return to ... some past period or irrecoverable condition."

If the virtues and values Life chronicled are irrecoverable, then we are doomed as a society. The yearning for the past good is growing, as the latest Battleground 2000 poll has discovered. The poll found that "moral values" are now of greater concern to voters than education, Social Security and Medicare. Just last month, the same poll found education the top concern, with moral values second.

What might these misplaced moral values be and where can they be located? For help, I turn to the Dec. 21, 1942, issue of Life. It was 10 cents then. I recently paid $12 for a copy at the flea market. The cover shows a woman sitting in a chair. Behind her is a picture of her serviceman-husband, who is away at war. It's labeled "Lonely Wife." Inside, advertisements ask that we conserve for the war effort. The phone company requests that you not call long distance that Christmas because "the war needs the wires."

A U.S. Rubber Co. ad captures the moral underpinnings of that day. On the left page is a drawing of a woman and her baby. On the right is the text: "Your father will not be here for this, your first Christmas. The war has taken him away from us, but his love warms our family hearth. You are the son of a man whose principles are his strength. He has gone to war for those principles. He has taken up arms against evil. His faith is our faith. His strength is our strength ....

"Now we are about to celebrate our first family Christmas though your father will not be here. We have loaned him to America. We have loaned him to the America you, too, will grow up to love. We have loaned him, so that in years to come, young mothers everywhere, on Christmas day, shall be able to say `Merry Christmas' to their sons."

Are such values irrecoverable? Only if we don't know where to find them.

Life was a light to any who needed to discover the way.

A Hamilton Watch Co. ad in that 1942 Life might remind those searching for it what forgotten virtue looks like: "There was a pioneer Christmas in America -- when a lonely little band of Pilgrims knew fear and cold and hunger. There was a Revolutionary Christmas -- when a nation struggling to be born almost perished at Valley Forge. There were Christmases in bitter years of civil strife and bloodshed -- when brother fought brother, friend took up arms against friend. There was a Christmas when the outcome of the first World War looked heartbreakingly unsure. These times, too, shall pass away!"

Let's hope these times will, too, with school shootings, low behavior in high places, family breakup -- even confusion as to what constitutes a family -- and so much sexual immorality. Cosmopolitan's latest cover trumpets "How to Touch a Naked Man." That's life?

I keep my Life magazines nearby lest I forget my heritage and roots. It isn't nostalgia. It's about remembering how a great generation became great.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.

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