With Barack Obama’s first news conference slated for tonight at 8 p.m. eastern, it is a safe bet that--like on Inauguration Day--the most over-used word in the English language Monday will be “Kennedy-esque.” There will be paeans to John Kennedy’s style and grace in the press room, as well as questions about whether Obama could ever possibly match them. But were JFK’s press conferences really that remarkable? Well, yes. Just as Babe Ruth remains baseball’s greatest slugger even though his home-run records have been eclipsed by chemically fueled parvenus, John Kennedy reigns as the master of the live presidential news conference, an art form that he and press secretary Pierre Salinger invented. With an estimated 65 million Americans watching the 6 p.m. telecast, JFK strode onto the stage of the State Department Auditorium on January 25, 1961, and made history. As a breathless TV newscaster said on air, “This is being presented live for the first time. In previous years, presidential news conferences have been recorded and filmed, but never broadcast or televised live.”
Beginning in 1955, Dwight Eisenhower’s news conferences had been filmed for television, but press secretary Jim Haggerty insisted on double-checking the transcripts for any potential presidential misstatements before they could be broadcast. As Salinger tells it in his memoir, With Kennedy, he asked the president-elect in Palm Beach a few weeks before the Inauguration, “What do you think of opening up your press conferences to live television? I don’t think there’s any doubt you can handle it. You proved that against Nixon in the debates.” The courtier’s flattery with which Salinger posed the question guaranteed that it would appeal to JFK’s vanity. Kennedy’s confidence prevailed against the opposition of his top advisers, notably Ted Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy, and Dean Rusk. Even more irate over live television were the White House correspondents for the major newspapers who feared that show-business values would trump substance. (These old White House hands would be proven right, but not while Kennedy was president).
The glib assumption these days is that JFK’s 64 face-offs with reporters were memorable simply because they were so witty and the youthful president oozed sex appeal. Video footage of the press conferences is nearly impossible to locate on the web, so these facile impressions are fostered by the brief news clips that pop up on television featuring, say, Kennedy being asked to comment on Vaughn Meader’s “First Family” comedy impersonations: “I listened to Mr. Meader’s record and I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me.”
(Audio recordings of a few Kennedy press conferences can be found online at the American Presidency Project. And the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has written transcripts of all of them. The Vaughn Meader crack can be found at 8:40 of this compilation of JFK’s press conference humor.)
But only by viewing the press conferences in their entirety do you get a sense of what made Kennedy’s performances the gold standard for presidential Q-and-A’s. The Kennedy Library graciously provided me a copy of JFK’s first three press conferences (all conducted within his first 19 days in office), which, alas, I am not allowed to post with this article. What was striking was the new president’s mastery of his material (he rarely looked down at notes), his decisiveness and his candor. Asked about government secrecy in his first press conference, Kennedy said (in words that deserve to be echoed by Obama), “I do not believe that the stamp `National Security’ should be put on mistakes of the administration which do not improve the national security.” During the second press conference on February 1, Kennedy was bluntly asked whether he would agree to debate his putative 1964 Republican rival. Rather than resorting to all the obvious political dodges (future presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon would refuse to participate in debates), Kennedy gave a memorable four-word answer: “Oh, I would, yes.”
It is fascinating to watch Kennedy as he realizes that humor can be a potent weapon in a press conference. Through most of the January 25 broadcast, JFK treats the format with the gravity of a presidential debate. There is no hint of levity in Kennedy’s solemn response to a question about whether an “inadvertent comment” on live television “could possibly cause some grave consequences.” About a half hour into the press conference, Kennedy tries a small joke at the end of a lengthy answer about the House Rules Committee, a Southern-reactionary bastion that continually would bottle up liberal legislation during his presidency. After expressing the vain hope that “a small group of men” would not prevent the entire House from voting, 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.
In the 48 years since that inaugural 1961 live press conference, we have seen eight subsequent presidents bob and weave, spin and sow, as they used the White House press corps as foils to drive home the political message of the day. But John Kennedy was different for one transcendent reason--he actually answered the reporters. Sure, there were presidential evasions and a bit of politically convenient double talk. But, for the most part, Kennedy took the questions seriously and responded with bracing forthrightness. Salinger is a bit over the top when he claims in his book, “Lacking the memoirs JFK would surely have written, the transcripts of his press conferences become his most revelatory legacy.” Kennedy’s shimmering press-conference legacy is that truth-telling beats twaddle and trickery nearly every time.
Political reporter Walter Shapiro has covered the last eight presidential campaigns.
By Walter Shapiro