My beloved stack of yellowing newspapers

My home is a mini repository for historic newspapers. The musty smell emanating from the stack of old newspapers in my den is as much a vestige of another time as the headlines announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, or the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Old newspapers are an inherently fascinating form of time travel. Even the incidental and mundane content, like a 1981 concert ad for Ozzy Osbourne contained in an issue of the now defunct Washington Star, is intriguing - sometimes more so than the headline stories that justified the archiving in the first place.

Rummage through the basements and attics of America, and you're likely to discover that most families have stashed away at least a couple of old newspapers - their faded photos and bold-face headlines mementos of various events that touched their lives, for better or ill.

The daily paper is also capable of capturing the spirit of a moment in ways that books or film cannot. Despite their yellowing pages, old newspapers deliver a fresh perspective on history - an interpretation of events as they happened, rather than through the complex analysis and revisionism to come.

With the advantage of hindsight, it's fun to stack up the prognostications of high-paid consultants and analysts with the historical record.

For instance, while recently looking at an August 1981 Washington Star, I found articles surrounding Reagan's first round of meetings with visiting Anwar Sadat, the firing of the air-traffic controllers, and a batch of forecasts of "an improved city" for early 21st century metropolitan Washington.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments suggested that the consequences of rising gasoline costs would cause the population to spike to 733,000, leading to an expanded middle class that would imbue the city with a balanced budget, vastly improved schools, a pro baseball team, a healthier racial climate, and a revitalized Pennsylvania Avenue "teeming with life and vitality around the clock."

In 2003, Washington still has no baseball team, its population is actually well below that of 1981, and last call still occurs around midnight.

That promising forecast may have been no less credible than similar estimates made today; however, no one could have plausibly predicted in the 1981 newspaper that Anwar Sadat's hopeful visit to the White House that August would be followed, two months later, by headlines of his assassination. Nor could anyone have a clue that the new Boeing 767-class aircraft unveiled that August and reported in The Washington Star, would be hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center 20 years later by people allied with Sadat's assassins.

As for those Ozzy Osbourne ads: It would have set you back a total of $8 to spend an evening with the rock star in the summer of 1981. Given the rate of inflation at the time, it probably would not have been difficult to project that, in 20 years, ticket prices would increase fivefold.

Although no mention was made of it in The Washington Star, that first week of August 1981 saw the launching of the MTV network. Only the most gifted of soothsayers rocking to Ozzy Osbourne 22 years ago could have foretold that, in a couple of decades, the Crown Prince of Darkness and his family would star in the highest-rated program in MTV history.

John M. Rosenberg writes about politics and international affairs.

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