Footnotes of Mad Men: How You Get Your News

Not to be contrary for the sake of it-because what can you say about November 22, 1963 that hasn’t already been borrowed three times over?-but the Kennedy family has only limited emotional resonance for those of us born to the baby boomers. This is particularly true for those of us who grew up in the West, far beyond the sway of East coast political dynasties. Sure, we can identify the Kennedys as a cultural shift, as style icons, as political talking points. We can also relate to the transformational power of their tragedies-hypnotic television coverage, live carnage, and, last night, an unmoored Betty Draper unable to make sense out of any of it. But for us now, that afternoon Dallas is more illustrative of something else: the swift and unscrupulous pace of history. Particularly, recent American history and how it is so phenomenally compressed. In just one generation, the psychic trauma of RFK and JFK has been largely erased. So maybe Don Draper’s aloof attitude is enlightened rather than repressive: “Everything’s going to be OK. We’ll have a new president. And everyone is going to be sad for a little bit.”

KISSINGBut stoIcism aside, there was a reference to the Kennedys in this episode that is not often discussed: the death of Jackie’s baby while in office. In August 1963, a special press briefing was held to announce Jackie’s fifth pregnancy. Ted Kennedy’s wife was also pregnant, so he was chosen to deliver the news. Before, a reporter asked Ted if he was going to confirm the President’s rumored upcoming trip to Ireland. “No,” Kennedy said. “It’s much sexier than that.” The baby, Patrick, was born five weeks premature with respiratory problems. He survived two days in a glass incubator and was then buried in a cemetery in Massachusetts.

§ To understand how news of that day would reach a young bride sequestered in her hotel room or a secretary who had her radio off, let’s look at the numbers.

Out of a group of 500 people that were polled ten days after the assassination, the majority reported learning about the shooting from other people-either by phone, by a co-worker or out while shopping or eating. Almost half said they learned about it first directly from another person.

Nine out of ten respondents said they knew about the shooting within an hour. Their reaction was to then use mass media to confirm what they had heard. Researchers suggested that the data showed that news of immense importance is most likely to be disseminated person-to-person than less important news. This ran contrary to earlier studies that suggested mass media disseminated important news faster than interpersonal communication. Which makes the wedding table chatter about ‘what those phone operators were really up to’ when phonelines in entire cities went dead perfectly in step.

79% of these people surveyed knew about the death within 15 minutes; the last person to hear about the assassination was someone who heard the news three hours later, at 1:30 p.m. Could you imagine what that guy’s story was? Additionally, the majority of the respondents said they learned more from the radio rather than the television.

§ Speaking of numbers, what about the almost-too-precious poetry of Betty’s favorite movie: Singing in the Rain, then 11 years old. (Notable movies of 1963, by the way? They include: The Birds and Hud.) The title song, and the best number in the movie, is set at night; Kelly is alone, for the most part, doing what you would expect. He is impervious to the elements because of his cheerful mood. Beyond the intricacy of the dance, perhaps one of the reasons why that scene is so indelible is because it’s what so many Americans wanted from the movies: a quick respite from the hard rain falling outside, alone, in the dark.

You can always find more Footnotes, with your hostess Natasha Vargas-Cooper, here!