OTD in History… January 25, 1961, John F Kennedy becomes the first president to hold a televised press conference

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history January 25 1961, President John F. Kennedy held the first press conference of his presidency only five days after his inauguration, it would be the first televised presidential press conference in American history. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy’s televised debates against opponent Republican nominee Richard Nixon are considered game-changers in presidential campaigning. Kennedy won the debates and the election in large part because of the image he projected on television. Kennedy realized the power of television even before his successful 1960 campaign, in 1959, Kennedy wrote, “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene,” published in TV Guide. After his televised inauguration, Kennedy decided to continue the momentum with his new presidency with the first televised presidential press conference. According to historian Alan Brinkley in his book John F. Kennedy: The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961–1963, “Kennedy enjoyed press conferences (he held sixty-four of them).” Kennedy was best known for his witty responses creating television moments.

In his 1959 article, “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene,” Kennedy acknowledged television would have a “revolutionary impact” on politics. At that point, Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts and only considering a run for the presidency in 1960. Kennedy believed television in politics would be “for the better” giving Americans the chance to first hand witness events they never could in history. However, Kennedy explained, “Political success on television is not, unfortunately, limited only to those who deserve it. It is a medium, which lends itself to manipulation, exploitation and gimmicks. It can be abused by demagogs, by appeals to emotion and prejudice and ignorance.” Kennedy admitted, “The images seen on TV ‘are likely to be uncannily correct.’” Kennedy also acknowledged that television benefits younger politicians, writing, “Youth may still be a handicap in the eyes of the older politicians.”

Source: JFK Library, taken by Abbie Rowe

By the time, Kennedy reached the presidency he was a master of the television medium and the televised press conference. Kennedy took advance of the television medium throughout his successful presidential campaign. On July 12, 1960, before clinching the Democratic presidential nomination Kennedy held a televised press conference. Robert Dallek recounts in his book An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963, the Kennedy campaign “inviting media coverage and arranging a Kennedy press conference with 750 journalists, the campaign added to the picture of an energetic, healthy, smiling candidate moving confidently toward an inevitable victory.” (Dallek, 265) Kennedy, however, was disappointed in his performance delivering his nomination acceptance speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 15. Kennedy was exhausted from campaigning and the back room negotiations to secure the nomination. Kennedy resolved, “To increase the amounts of steroids he normally took whenever he faced the stress of giving a major speech or press conference.” (Dallek, 275)

The zenith, however, was the televised presidential debates between Kennedy and Nixon, the televised debates brought in a new era of presidential campaigning focusing more on image than substance for the nominees. In the first presidential and most influential debate on September 26, 1960, over 70 million tuned in. Kennedy focusing on not just his message but his image took the afternoon off from campaigning prior to the debate, appeared more rested, tanned in a dark fitted suit that made him stand out from the background. Kennedy spoke to the audience while Nixon addressed his opponent. Kennedy appeared as the statesman and Nixon trying to be less “combative” seemed a shadow of the promising young politician, who mastered television with the Checkers Speech just eight years earlier in 1952.

Kennedy appeared young and evanescent compared to Nixon, who looked tired and haggard. The major issue of the campaign had been the level of political experience between the two nominees, with two-term Vice President Nixon charging Kennedy of being the inexperienced one in domestic and foreign policy. The debates changed the public perception; Kennedy’s masterful use of the medium made him the clear winner of the first debate although radio listeners deemed Nixon the winner (although they were mostly rural voters and Republicans), proving the changing power television would bring to the future campaigns.

In the 1960 campaign, television was used on mass to appeal to voters Kennedy made 200 commercials, which utilized his young wife Jackie Kennedy and had celebrity endorsements. In 1960, Kennedy became the first presidential candidate to go on late night television when he went on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Paar later said, “They had never before seen such a young, attractive senator.” Kennedy kept up the tradition of press conferences during the presidential transition. As Dallek noted, Kennedy “made every cabinet selection the occasion for a press conference at which he not only emphasized the virtues of the appointee but also his own attentiveness to and knowledge of the major issues facing them.” (Dallek, 321)

Source: JFK Library

President Kennedy held his first press conference at the State Department auditorium, appropriately because the president decided again like his inaugural address to focus on foreign policy and a big enough venue for the amount of journalists present. Kennedy realized the importance of mastering foreign policy; a president could determine and had more control of foreign policy versus domestic policy because they were at the mercy of an unpredictable Congress. As Dallek explains, “Fourteen years in Washington had taught Kennedy that presidents had greater control over foreign than domestic policy and had a better chance of promoting national unity with foreign initiatives than domestic ones, which were certain to provoke acrimonious political divisions.” (Dallek, 328)

At his press conference, a reporter asked Kennedy the same question “why his inaugural speech had dealt only with international problems.” Kennedy responded, “Well, because the issue of war and peace is involved, and the survival of perhaps the planet, possibly our system.” According to Dallek, Kennedy “explained that the views of his administration on domestic affairs were already well known to the American people and would become better known in the next month.” Kennedy felt it was more important to focus on foreign policy, because “We are new . . . on the world scene, and therefore I felt there would be some use in informing countries around the world of our general view on the questions which . . . divide the world.” (Dallek, 328)

Kennedy’s 37-minute press conference began with prepared remarks. Andrew Glass recounted, Kennedy first announced his administration was “postponing nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva with the Soviet Union until March.” Kennedy announced increased food aid to the African Congo. The president also announced “two survivors from the crew of a U.S. RB-47 aircraft were released” by the Soviet Union after being in captivity since July 1, 1960. Then after Kennedy fielded questions from 32 reporters, it was when Kennedy would be most memorable in his press conferences. Kennedy responded to questions about “U.S. relations with Cuba, voting rights and food aid to impoverished Americans.”

A reporter asked Kennedy about televising his press conferences, saying, “There has been some apprehension about the instantaneous broadcast of presidential news conferences such as this one, the contention being that an inadvertent statement no longer correctable, as in the old days, could possibly cause some grave consequences. Do you feel there is any risk, or could you give us some thought on that subject?” Kennedy responded contradicting the reporter, “Well, it was my understanding that the statements made by the, by President [Dwight] Eisenhower, were on the record. There may have been a clarification that could have been issued afterwards but it still would have demonstrated, it still would have been on the record as a clarification, so that I don’t think that the interests of our country are — it seems to me they’re as well protected under this system as they were under the system followed by President Eisenhower. And this system has the advantage of providing more direct communication.”

A highlight was when Kennedy was asked about one domestic imitative, the Kennedy administration and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn’s fight to expand the Rules Committee to increase the likely hood of Kennedy’s progressive bills getting a hearing on the floor of the House of Representatives among Conservative Southern Democrats. Dallek called the initiative “a formidable first test of Kennedy’s political skills.” When asked about “Whether he was living up to his commitment to be in the thick of the political battle” Kennedy responded that he supported the Rules Committee expansion, saying the small minority of Southern Democrats “a small group of men” should not prevent the majority from “letting their judgments be known.” Kennedy, however, promised to let the House “to settle this matter in its own way” and pledged not to “infringe upon that responsibility. I merely give my view as an interested citizen.” (Dallek, 329)

Kennedy finished his remarks, “with a broad smile and to the amusement of the press corps, which erupted in laughter.” (Dallek, 329) The New England Historical Society in “The Kennedy Press Conference, Always Good for a Laugh,” points out at the conclusion of his first presidential press conference Kennedy’s “wit disarmed the press and won over the viewers.” Walter Shapiro in The New Republic reported, “Kennedy added, ‘I merely give my view as an interested citizen.’ As the reporters in their rumpled suits and narrow ties burst into laughter, a puckish grin crosses Kennedy’s face as he revels in his look-what-I-discovered-about-live-television moment.” Sixty-five million Americans tuned into Kennedy first press conference. The NEHS noted, “Kennedy’s delivery was key to his wit.” Ron Simon called Kennedy’s first press conference a “high-wire act of great valor and vigilance.”

After Kennedy’s first presidential press conference, TIME reported, “The first days of a new job or new adventure never leave the mind; and the first days of a new President always remain vivid to his constituents. Few last week will forget the sight of the tense and nervous young man who stood, his white-knuckled hands clutching the sides of his lectern, to face the press and live national TV in his first presidential news conference… His performance — cool, controlled, knowledgeable — was hard to fault, as was his matter-of-fact handling of the return of imprisoned U.S. Airmen Freeman Bruce Olmstead and John McKone… Thus last week President Kennedy answered and fulfilled the mood of expectancy.”

Press secretary Pierre Salinger explained the reason the administration decided to opt for televised press conferences, “There were only three or four newspapers in the entire United States that carried a full transcript of a presidential news conference. Therefore, what people read was a distillation. … We thought that they should have the opportunity to see it in full.” Kennedy’s press conferences made their mark, at the time polls showed that 90 percent of Americans asked saw one of his first three press conferences in 1961, an average each time of 18 million households.

Although the administration claimed they want the public to have access to the entire press conference and see it objectively, Kennedy’s radiance on the screen was hardly an objective. Kennedy worked to perfect his performance consulting director Franklin Schaffner and producer Fred Coe and reviewing his passed television appearances, press conferences and speeches. Sid Davis, “the Washington bureau chief for NBC News and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company” recalled, Kennedy “was articulate, thoughtful, handsome and hip, a man who could think on his feet.” Ron Simon writing, “See How JFK Created a Presidency for the Television Age” indicates, Kennedy “learned the nuances of political discourse so well that if often seemed he was simultaneously directing himself, a White House hyphenate of Orson Welles ambition.” According to History, “Kennedy’s ability to project charm, intelligence, strength and openness defined the presidential image in the age of mass media.”

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Brinkley, Alan. John F. Kennedy. New York, NY: Times Books, 2012.

Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Boston (Mass.: Little, Brown and Co, 2003.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism.