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60 amazing years of history

When Time magazine was born in 1923 I was already here. The big, gaudy 60th anniversary issue of Time has just come on sale. The front cover calls it ''The most amazing 60 years in history.'' Well, this is fairly sweeping, I must say, and naturally it plunges me into nostalgia. Sixty years - 1923. That's a lot of time.

The Washington bureau of The Christian Science Monitor was headed by Cora Rigby in those days and had three members. They were in the Colorado Building, with an enclave of reporters around them that filled the ninth floor, mostly nationally known; Jay Hayden of the Detroit News, Mark Foote with a Michigan syndicate, Russell Kent from Memphis, Paul Wooton of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and half a dozen other offices. Cora Rigby took me over to see my first presidential press conference around then. I have total recall.

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There standing behind the desk, wearing golf knickers (plus fours), was the handsomest president since George Washington. He was elected in 1920 when wit and columnist ''F.P.A.'' posed the question,

Harding or Cox? Harding or Cox - ?

You tell us populi,

You've got the vox!

Now he was answering sharp questions and I pinched myself to believe I was there. I had to adjust my viewpoint suddenly - from automatic veneration for an American president to a professional journalistic skepticism - a transition that was almost more than I could stand. The President turned to us appealingly at the end and urged us almost wistfully to go easy on him - he wanted to get away and play some golf.

In its anniversary number Time magazine builds up its point of departure, to emphasize how far we have come in 60 years. To be sure we have! I could park my seven-foot-high

Model T in the Ellipse behind the White House then and leave it there all day long. Postage was 2 cents. Almond bars were a nickel. There were other, deeper changes. And riots and wars. . . .

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The city of Washington wasn't technically segregated 60 years ago, although the streetcars and buses were across the Potomac on the Virginia side. But there were racial restrictions in the capital. Here is what W.M. Kiplinger wrote in his book ''Washington Is Like That'' in 1942 (about 20 years after Time began publication):

''(Negroes) have their own hotels, their own schools, their own restaurants. Exceptions are the Union Station restaurant and some government cafeterias. They are not admitted to regular theaters and rarely to musical concerts. . . . There are occasional rumblings of dissatisfaction with the unwritten rules of segregation, especially as to movie theaters, concerts, and public gatherings, and the time doubtless will come when the Negroes will demand admission.''

Thumbing through what Time magniloquently calls ''the most amazing 60 years in history,'' I find tremendous events sandwiched in with snippets of news culled from a lifetime. Here in Washington I have followed 12 presidents. The wars, of course, are the events for historians; a reporter on the heavy cruiser Quincy watched the gliders soar in over the Normandy coast, June 6, 1944. That was excitement. But surely these social changes equal their importance. This special issue of Time has one arresting picture on Page 75 showing the civil rights march of 1963, with the Tidal Basin from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial lined with a quarter-million people. (That time when Martin Luther King chanted, ''I have a dream!'') Those are moments hard to catch in formal chronicles. There was that speech, too, that Lyndon Johnson made to the joint session of Congress, March 15, 1965, in favor of the voting-rights bill. A strange man, Lyndon Johnson. I found him hard to love - ultimately ruined by the Vietnam war. But this was a watershed speech in the journey from slavery to Civil War, from Emancipation to the ambiguous present.

It deserves a footnote, perhaps. From the press gallery above the President's I jotted down phrases as he spoke which were imbued with moral fervor: It was wrong, he said, to procrastinate any longer: ''We cannot, we must not, refuse . . . the time for waiting has gone . . . I want to be the president who helped the poor.'' He concluded with the burst, ''We shall overcome!''

That's one of the bright buttons in the ragbag of 60 years' memories.

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