Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics

Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics

Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics

Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics


In the twenty-first century, why do we keep talking about the Fifties and the Sixties? The stark contrast between these decades, their concurrence with the childhood and youth of the baby boomers, and the emergence of television and rock and roll help to explain their symbolic power. In Happy Days and Wonder Years, Daniel Marcus reveals how interpretations of these decades have figured in the cultural politics of the United States since 1970.

From Ronald Reagan's image as a Fifties Cold Warrior to Bill Clinton's fandom for Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy, politicians have invoked the Fifties and the Sixties to connect to their public. Marcus shows how films, television, music, and memoirs have responded to the political nostalgia of today, and why our entertainment remains immersed in reruns, revivals, and references to earlier times. This book offers a new understanding of how politics and popular culture have influenced our notions of the past, and how events from long ago continue to shape our understanding of the present day.


On July 23, 1999, a small plane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., disappeared off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. For the next several days the nation was treated to a media spectacle of the first order. The major broadcast networks interrupted their regular schedules of programming to cover the search effort for hours on end. The cable news networks offered twenty-four-hour daily coverage. Television specials were quickly assembled that told the story of Kennedy's life—his birth immediately following his father's election to the presidency in 1960; his years in the White House and famous salute to his father's casket; his reemergence as a celebrity lawyer and journalist. Television coverage also included the public response to Kennedy's disappearance and death—the vigil and shrine constructed outside his New York City apartment; reporters' speculation about whether he would have run for political office; noted historians' analyses of the role of the Kennedy family in the nation's history. The following week, news magazines and tabloids alike featured Kennedy on their covers.

The extent to which the display was actually representative of a profound regard for John F. Kennedy, Jr., among the public is impossible to gauge. In contemporary America, it is often useless to try to distinguish outpourings of deeply held public emotion from ephemeral responses to media coverage that is expertly designed to provoke senses of familiarity, sorrow, and catharsis at the death of a celebrity. Both the media attention and the public response attest, however, to the discursive power of politically minded nostalgia. The Kennedy presidency and family saga continued to generate strong affective response in the late 1990s, forty years after John Kennedy's assassination. Many Americans seemed ready to measure their hopes for the nation by the possibility of a symbolic return to an era that most citizens could not remember in any direct, personal way.

This book examines the debate over the American past that has pervaded popular culture and national politics since the 1970s. For much of that decade, nostalgia pervaded popular culture; since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, various political figures, parties, and movements have drawn upon this nostalgia to generate usable narratives of post–World War II

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