May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

You were there, thanks to television, to experience a triumph no less historic than Columbus’s discovery of the New World: On July 20, 1969, while one-fifth of the world’s inhabitants stared in amazement at two tiny white figures alone in ghastly desolation, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (right) set foot on the moon—and attained for mankind the goal of its first great cosmic adventure. And you were there again to witness a national disaster: On Jan. 28, 1986, seven astronauts perished when the space shuttle Challenger exploded exactly 74 seconds after lift-off and scribbled horror across pleasant Southern skies.

It was the most exciting upset since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lamp, a miracle on ice that drove 52 million U.S. TV viewers wild with joy. On Feb. 22, 1980, the U.S. Olympic hockey team, against huge odds, beat the Russians at Lake Placid. One more win captured the gold.

TV’s most startling statement was made on Sept. 24, 1960, by Howdy Doody’s Clarabell. Silent for 13 years, the clown ended Howdy’s last show with two sad words: “Goodbye, kids.”

The most famous tantrum ever seen on TV was thrown on Feb. 11, 1960, when Tonight host Jack Paar abruptly left the show after NBC censors excised one of his mildly risqué stories.

Dallas pulled off TV’s greatest gimmick, a summer-long cliff-hanger that kept the world wondering Who Shot J.R.? On Nov. 21, 1980, a then-record 83 million tuned in to find out.

TV captured the heart-rending final Scenes of a national tragedy: On Nov. 25, 1963, as President John F. Kennedy was carried in solemn cortege to his grave, John-John saluted the father he had barely begun to know.

Television opened the era of image politics with the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. Nixon looked gray, Kennedy vital. Kennedy won.

With terrible immediacy, TV made the whole nation eyewitness to Jack Ruby’s murder of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, on Nov. 24, 1963.

TV’s most fascinating miniseries was the Senates 1973 Watergate inquiry. It had mystery, suspense, skulduggery in high places, colorful characters. Nixon’s legal adviser John Dean (right, with wife Maureen) played the suave informer, Senator Sam Ervin (above) a grand inquisitor with biblical eloquence and Southern charm.

TV’s power to make or break politicians was shown in 1954’s Army-McCarthy hearings. Lawyer Joseph Welch (left) exposed red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy as a liar. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch asked. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Television watched the inexorable process of Richard Nixon’s destruction with a clear eye that Sophocles might have envied. Dispassionate but merciless, the camera followed his descent into disgrace and resignation, and on Aug. 9, 1974, recorded his hollow farewell gesture.

The Vietnam War, the first ever televised, revealed TV’s ability to shape national policy. Nightmare scenes, like Morley Safer’s Aug. 5, 1965, CBS report on a village being torched (above), slowly turned the public against the war and LBJ, the President who had pursued it.

A million Britons cheered as Prince Charles married Lady Di in 1981, and worldwide a billion people saw the newlyweds ride by in splendor on TV.

When Luke (Anthony Geary) wed Laura (Genie Francis) on General Hospital’ in 1981, TV’s all-time biggest daytime audience wept.

Miss Vicki married tiptoeing troubador Tiny Tim on The Tonight Show in 1969 and a bemused, then-record audience looked on.

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