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Mostly from a U.S. standpoint, what’s the biggest ‘where were you when…’ moment in history?

The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination is tomorrow; I’m sure most of you potentially reading this knew that by now. I was watching Tom Brokaw on The Daily Show last night, and he made some good points regarding that moment in American history (not the least of which is that he was a ‘cub reporter’ in Omaha at the time. TOM BROKAW IN OMAHA!!! There is hope for the journalistic grind everywhere!) One of his more salient arguments was that Kennedy kind of belonged to all of us (well, not me, as I wasn’t born yet) because he was the first television President (in sixth grade, a kid I didn’t like made a really compelling oral presentation about how Kennedy only won the Presidency because of TV; I know that’s a fairly conventional historical argument, but you had to see this 12-year-old get after it). Anyway … let’s toss age aside for a second, and look at this broad-term. What’s the most “where were you…” moment in American history? I feel like from a caveat perspective, we need to limit this to the TV age — mass media expanded the idea of where were you, in the sense of, the Emancipation Proclamation was a tremendous moment, but was it carried country-wide? — and we need to keep it to just America. We’re only doing the latter caveat because it would be disrespectful of me to talk about where were you moments in Laos history, since I know nothing about those countries.

Alright, caveats aside, I feel like this is probably No. 1:

That changed everything: how we think about the world, how we think about ourselves, how we think about NYC, how we think about landmarks, how we think about architecture, how we think about planes, how we think about urban development, how we think about Presidencies, how we think about oil, etc. It’s amazing to even reflect on a pre-9/11 world. I feel as if that wins this where were you situation discussion. I can literally remember second-by-second how that morning unfolded, and I’m not sure I could concretely tell you what I did five hours ago. That’s the resonance there.

Let’s deal with a couple of sports moments before we dive into things with more ballast, namely these two:

In Clip A, you’re talking about one of the most important figures in a sport rising meteorically at the time — an absolute demi-god in the middle of the country — dying in one of the biggest races in his sport. In Clip B, you’re talking about perhaps the athlete of the 1980s, the embodiment of why people flock to Los Angeles from all parts of the world, announcing he has the disease that disrupted the world in the 1980s. Both are extremely powerful moments; the latter actually happened on my 11th birthday and I can still remember that my dad seemed fairly preoccupied with that, despite having no connection to the Lakers at all, as we were doing gifts.

In this one, you’re talking about the untimely demise, at the hand of another, of one of the leaders of (arguably) the greatest band of all-time.

… and in this one, you’re talking about someone who changed the entire face of pop music (and in some ways, even consumerism music). I wasn’t barely 1 (terrible sentence structure, sorry) when Lennon died, but I was 29 or so when MJ died, and I can tell you about that moment pretty clearly and humorously: it was the same night Blake Griffin was drafted No. 1 overall by the Clippers, and I was watching with two friends at a bar. Almost every channel except ESPN was roadblocked on MJ’s death — was he or wasn’t he? — and about 12 feet to my left, three girls out for the night just completely broke down (weren’t even drunk at the time), screaming “Noooo!!!” The bar then played “Man In The Mirror,” and the waterworks only got worse. It was honestly one of the more raw emotional things I’ve seen in a watering hole.

Back to politics and geopolitics for a second:

The Berlin Wall’s fall? Big one. It heralded the demise of the Cold War.

The Challenger explosion was another big “live” moment, both in terms of the quality of what was in front of people and what it meant for NASA and our role in the space movement.

Although Reagan was fine, this was another major where were you … moment. People love to speculate on what would have happened if Kennedy had lived, but very few discuss the idea of Reagan being assassinated so soon into what was eventually an eight-year run as President; the guy was ‘leader of the free world’ for essentially the entire 1980s. Could you imagine how the trajectory of history might have changed if this bullet found its mark?

There’s a million other political things I could put here, but in the interest of time, I feel like this is the best one to close this section on: the ultimate Obama swagger moment (please note, and I’m not saying this politically because I actually like Obama, but this happened only a few years ago and, probably about 30 months later, Obama is at his lowest approval rating ever):

There’s a few cultural ones I’ve clearly missed — the death of Kurt Cobain, for example, or even Reagan’s funeral — but I feel like this one embedded below was an all-timer in terms of TV coverage. They’ve even made many a documentary about it. 

I forgot this when I was typing earlier, so I’d be remiss not to include it now; many people look at the 1960s historically in terms of the ‘three-death’ rule as JFK, RFK and MLK. In fact, on that same Daily Show I was referencing above, Jon Stewart — who was about 1 when JFK happened, but had a little more cognition when the other two happened — talked about remembering those moments as crucial to American history.

Here’s an entire list of these moments (for Boomers, at least). I’m clearly missing a bunch — Miracle on Ice, first man on the moon (provided you believe it wasn’t a hoax) — but I’ll end with two that I think are important; not more or less important than any of those above, but important as stand-alone moments for what they represent and the ability to remember exactly how they unfolded.

First:

I was in Cape Cod (I know, I’m the one percent) with some of my family when this happened; no one there had any true ties to the royal family or had even seemed to care about them before this, and yet, they were glued to the TV all weekend.

Second:

There were shootings before Columbine, and Lord knows there have been shootings since Columbine; but this really seemed like the first big moment — almost the first time we collectively looked at TVs and could ask ourselves, “What in the shit is happening here?”

I know I’ve missed a ton here (history is a pretty wide-ranging thing, even when limiting it to America and the past 50 years), but I hope it’s been somewhat of a solid guide. Let’s hope that most of the next where were you moments tend to be positive.

Ted Bauer

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