It’s no wonder that President Biden has waited 64 days to subject himself to his first news conference. Land mines await.
Biden is throwing himself to the press wolves 60 years after President John F. Kennedy pioneered the live television news conference on Jan. 25, 1961. He’d been in office five days.
If the risks to Biden seem large today, the risks to Kennedy were incalculable since no one had dared use the new and expanding medium of television to meet the assembled press.
Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, allowed his news conferences to be filmed beginning in 1955 — but with a condition. His press secretary, James Hagerty, taped the events for later broadcast and, according to Charles Roberts, who covered the White House for Newsweek from Eisenhower to Nixon, Hagerty “reserved the right to edit those films — a totally different thing from a live news conference.”
Kennedy, who was 43 years old, recognized the hazards of going live but he also had confidence in his command of facts, smooth delivery, ability for quick summation and, in a pinch, his wit. For him, a live news conference was like Twitter today: a welcome chance to communicate directly with the American people without the filtering of the news media.
Reporters, not surprisingly, weren’t keen on the proposition. When press secretary Pierre Salinger informed them that the president intended to hold live press events, “most of us print reporters, comprising the vast majority of the press corps then, objected vociferously to the idea of making a TV spectacle out of a news conference,” Roberts told a Kennedy Presidency Forum at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
Salinger shut down the complaints in no-nonsense fashion. “It was the president’s news conference — not theirs — and he would run it his way,” he told the reporters. “The decision was final. They could take it or leave it.”
Kennedy was sold on the effectiveness of speaking directly to the nation. Ben Bradlee, then the Washington bureau chief for Newsweek, told biographer Ralph Martin that the president once told him: “When we don’t have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story to the American people.”
Kennedy’s news conference changed the rules for reporters who had grown used to being in proximity to presidents during press questioning. Reporters during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration had special access.
As historian and Kennedy adviser Arthur Schlesinger has written: “Roosevelt’s press conferences were intimate off-the-record sessions around the presidential desk in the oval office.”
Even under Eisenhower reporters were able to grill the president within easy speaking range. But Kennedy moved the locale from the intimate Indian Treaty Room in the Executive Office Building used by Eisenhower to the airy State Department auditorium. Reporters felt distanced from the president.
Chicago Daily News reporter Peter Lisagor remembered “in Eisenhower’s time, we were up close to him, and we could ask him a question, we could see his temper flare.”
The State Department atmosphere was something entirely different. “In this great big, huge auditorium,” Lisagor said, “I always thought we got up and flung the question across this great cavern hoping [the president] would catch it on the fly like Willie Mays.” With Kennedy up on the stage and the reporters below in seats in the hall, Lisagor “felt completely out of it.”
Kennedy’s chief audience, however, was not the reporters in the State Department auditorium but rather Americans in front of their televisions at home. On their screens, viewers watched Kennedy in close-up and felt they were afforded a rare intimate moment with him.
“Home viewers . . . could not have been much closer to John Kennedy if they were making love,” wrote Mary Ann Watson in “The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years.” “They could examine his face and observe his expression and gestures freely.”
And Kennedy was able to turn on the charm with his good looks and witty quips. Though his advisers provided him with potential comic asides, he rarely drew on them. His speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, knew Kennedy could rely on himself.
“His own humorous responses, nearly all of them spontaneous, were both funnier and more appropriate than any we suggested,” Sorensen wrote in his book, “Kennedy.”
But, some observers worried, humor could quickly turn apocalyptic in the spontaneity of live questioning. While Biden is grappling with a pandemic, mounting immigration troubles at the southern border, two mass shootings and growing churlishness from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kennedy came to power during an escalating Cold War backed by stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
A misguided Kennedy remark, some feared, could have drastic consequences. New York Times columnist James Reston mused that a slip of the tongue could precipitate an international catastrophe. He deemed a live news conference “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop.”
During the news conference, a reporter noted the “apprehension about the instantaneous broadcast” of the president’s words, warning that an “inadvertent statement . . . could possibly cause some grave consequences.”
Kennedy dismissed the concern, arguing that his predecessor had made statements that needed clarification and if a correction was required on anything he said, it could be swiftly disseminated. The president asserted that “the interests of our country are . . . as well protected under this system as they were under the system followed by President Eisenhower.”
A live news conference comes with great risk but also great opportunity. Biden, known for his gaffes, may not have the fluidity of Kennedy. Biden, the oldest president America has ever known, does not have Kennedy’s youth. But Biden has a golden chance to take command of the news cycle by looking his television audience in the eye and speaking from the heart.
What Kennedy inaugurated Biden can turn to his advantage. “Those live cameras at that first news conference transformed what Teddy Roosevelt called the ‘bully pulpit,’ ” Roberts observed. “They gave the president the upper hand forevermore in his verbal bouts with the press.”
Steven Levingston, nonfiction editor of The Washington Post, is author of “Kennedy and King: The President, the Pastor, and the Battle Over Civil Rights” and “Barack and Joe: The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership.”
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