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Another president went directly to the people, but did it right

Very early in his administration, the president decided he had to find a way to get around the mainstream media and appeal directly to the people. He succeeded better than most, including the current awkward practitioner of the art.

John F. Kennedy had been in office for only a few days when, on Jan. 25, 1961, he became the first American president to hold a live, televised news conference. His predecessor, President Eisenhower, had done some filmed news conferences, but he insisted on White House approval before any exchange could be broadcast. 

Fresh from his triumphant televised debates, Kennedy believed he’d be good at answering questions from the press live and unedited. He was on friendly terms with the press and had been a reporter for a time, but like every president before and since, he had misgivings on the intrusive nature of journalists and journalism. He did not, however, consider the press to be the enemy of the people.

The press, however, didn’t exactly welcome the Kennedy innovation.

James “Scotty” Reston, the nation’s best known Washington correspondent, wrote in his New York Times column that the televised presidential press conference was “the goofiest idea since the hula hoop.” 

Newspapers understandly weren’t terribly enthusiastic about seeing the news they broke through their questioning reach America before it could be printed. But the weekly news conferences, with the president’s articulation and wit so evident, became immensely popular and served Kennedy well.

In that first news conference, the new president answered questions about voting rights for minorities, executive orders and executive privilege, the release of two airmen by the Soviet Union and reopening diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

He even anticipated future controversies with the press on the perennial issue of national security versus the public’s right to know, saying, “I do not believe that the stamp ‘National Security’ should be put on mistakes of the administration.” But, he added, he did not believe that all matters available to the executive should be available to the press and public.

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Within two months, that position would be sorely tested by the president and the press, with neither side left unsullied. Kennedy inherited the Eisenhower Administration’s plan to sponsor an uprising against the communist government in Cuba by having the CIA assist Cuban exiles in an invasion of their former homeland.

The New York Times first reported the plan before Kennedy’s inauguration, and on April 7, 1961, there was a second Times story indicating the plan was closer to reality. The reporter, Tad Szulc, had learned an invasion was imminent, but the Times omitted that fact under a one column headline that read: “Anti-Castro Units/Trained to Fight/At Florida Bases.” 

The story ran despite the government’s denials, and 10 days later, a small force of exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs and was quickly repulsed.

Two weeks later, an angry president summoned Times officials to the White House to discuss the premature release of government security information. 

But at the meeting, Kennedy also confided to executive editor Turner Catledge, “Maybe if you had printed more about the operation, you would have saved us from a colossal mistake.” If the Times had reported what it knew, that the invasion was planned for mid-April, the ill-advised and ill-fated invasion probably would have been canceled.

Kennedy followed this discussion with a speech to the American Newspaper Publishers Association in which he called on the press to avoid publishing stories that were not in the interest of national security, certainly knowing that the government and press have quite divergent views on the subject.

And he didn’t stop there. In 1962, he asked the publisher of The Times to transfer an aggressive young reporter named David Halberstam from Vietnam, where he was discovering and reporting the failures of the South Vietnamese government to control the Viet Cong. The Times refused.

The Times wasn’t the only major newspaper that occasionally annoyed John Kennedy. The highly regarded journal of liberal Republicanism, The New York Herald Tribune, frequently irritated Kennedy, and finally, he ordered all of the White House subscriptions to the Trib canceled.

Embarrassed when his petulance was reported, the president quietly ordered bootlegged copies of the paper delivered to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue every morning, and the subscription was eventually renewed.

But the incident inspired the Herald Tribune’s great humor columnist Art Buchwald to write a parody of the famous New York Sun editorial to a little girl named Virginia, who had asked The Sun if Santa Claus existed.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Herald Tribune,” wrote Buchwald. Despite its disappearance from a prominent national address, little girls can still believe in the existence of The New York Herald Tribune.

If he were writing today, Buchwald would be a fine foil for the twitterer in chief. When Richard Nixon was lashing out at press coverage of Watergate, Buchwald wrote that, “as a humor columnist, I need President Nixon more than he needs me. I worship the quicksand he walks on.”

And earlier, when Eisenhower press secretary Jim Hagerty called a Buchwald spoof of Hagerty’s press briefings “unadulterated rot,” Buchwald protested.

“Hagerty is wrong, I write only adulterated rot.” 

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.