Charles de Gaulle, living in a democratic society that had one (state-controlled) television network, spoke for all chief executives: he used to say that all print reporters were against him, but television belonged to him. It was a classic statement of a politician about journalism: print can be too querulous, can do too much analyzing of motives, can spread too much doubt. But broadcasting is different; it accepts by and large what has been said and passes it on, often uncritically. A politician often has difficulty getting on the air, but a President can go on when he chooses in the setting he chooses.
If, as the choice of Cronkite to anchor the half-hour news show made plain, the limits on network journalism were becoming narrower and more sensitive to pressures from high public officials, then the converse was also true. Those in the highest of offices were becoming more aware of television, more powerful because of television, and more skillful at exploiting it.
Eisenhower had used television well and had let the cameras into the White House on a regular basis, but he was a man of a passing era. Jack Kennedy, by contrast, was a modern man, the first television President. He performed with such charm and dispatch that much of the intellectual elite of the country, which might have reacted with distaste to the blending of politics and television because of the potential for demagoguery involved, enthusiastically applauded him. (The applause was generated in no small part because the alternative to him was Richard M. Nixon.) He and the camera were born for each other. He was its first great political superstar; as he made TV bigger, it made him bigger. Everyone using everyone. The President using the media, the media using the President.
Kennedy understood that television executives respect power and that television producers love film, and thus that the President and the executive branch could virtually go into the business of producing film, producing their own shows. The President’s travels to other countries were events, special affairs that reporters and cameras would follow not just dutifully but enthusiastically, as they would never follow a Senate majority leader or a Supreme Court Justice or a lowly governor. He could in fact make his travels—often travels with a high degree of domestic political, orientation—the nation’s travels, and he could thus induce network journalists almost unconsciously to drop their normal critical roles and become a part of the pageantry, heralds of it, as it were, and little more. The farther the President was from Washington, the less he was seen as a domestic political figure and the more he was a kind of national symbol, President of all the people (Nixon’s China trip was the ultimate example of this). Similarly, the less knowledgeable and secure the correspondent, the weaker his own sources of information and the greater his dependence upon the President’s entourage for what he reported. The network reporter’s ability to get on the air increased as his ability to understand what was going on decreased.
In countless ways John Kennedy wrote the book on television and the presidency, a book which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon studied carefully, both of them feeling very much in his shadow. But however deep the shadow, each man developed his own shrewd sense of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the networks, and played upon them.
Thus, regardless of who was President, the decade saw a change in political and power balances: Fred Friendly in 1960 a liberal CBS television executive anxious to help counsel a liberal President-elect on the use of television went to Washington at the request of his superiors to help advise the new President on how to be more effective and more spontaneous. A little more than a decade later he was calling the office “an electronic presidency,” and in the summer of 1974 he complained to his old associate Walter Cronkite that Cronkite’s accompanying Nixon on the latter’s dubious trip to the Middle East would escalate the importance of the trip.
Television not only changed the balance of power, but it became a vital part of the new balance of power. Presidents knew the advantage they had in gaining access to the air and the difficulties any competing politician or institution had. Presidents had used or suffered press conferences for a variety of reasons, including a chance to listen to the country. Kennedy seized on live television as an opportunity for political theater. He used reporters as pawns to help make him look better, smarter, shrewder, more capable, and in control. Indeed, mastery of the press conference became a kind of substitute for mastery of the political scene The Bay of Pigs, for example, was a disaster and it was Kennedy’s fault, but it was not a televised disaster: there were no cameras on the scene. The response to the Bay of Pigs, however, was televised, and Kennedy had the power, authority, and the cool to handle it. He put off serious questions about the origins of the disaster and the decision-making about it on the basis of national security; then he accepted responsibility for it. He seemed completely in control, yet explained nothing. No wonder his popularity soared upward. Similarly, a year later, during the Cuban missile crisis, he could use television and an external threat to bind the nation to him. Space shots were to be covered: space shots were national and space heroes were to be welcomed by the President and hailed, their success merged with his office. He was identified with the space program, which was successful and modern, and with the astronauts, who were young, handsome, virile, brave, and much admired. Astronauts showed that America was on the move; astronauts and Kennedy and Jackie showed that America and Jack Kennedy were on the move.
He also sensed the danger of overexposure; that was unique, since it was a time when the politicians who understood television tended to clamor for more and more time. Early in his administration, he asked Pierre Salinger to find out how many Fireside Chats Roosevelt had given. Why? Salinger asked. Because the public remembered them, Kennedy explained; in the public mind Roosevelt was credited with giving lots of them, and it was important to see why they were so memorable. One reason they were memorable, Salinger soon found, was that there had been so few—roughly two a year until the war. You see, Kennedy said, the public thought FDR had been on the air all the time, and yet he had carefully rationed his appearances. Besides, he added, television was far more powerful and dramatic than radio, and thus there was all the more need to conservative: television could eat you up. When Salinger or other Kennedy aides would go to him and request that he make a particular appearance he would hold back; he had been on, he would say, a week ago or two weeks ago, and he was wary of how carnivorous the electronic beast was. At one point he checked with Robert Kintner, president of NBC, to ask if perhaps Jackie was being overexposed on television, and decided that in fact she was, and that it was time to hold down on her appearances.
Kennedy knew that television could widen the gap between him and his congressional opposition. The Republican party tried—almost pathetically—to answer him. The two Republican congressional leaders, Everett Dirksen and Charles Halleck, started holding a weekly press conference designed primarily for television. The problem was that Dirksen and Halleck were not designed for television: they had not risen to power by the route of open national exposure. Dirksen was like a huge and rich vegetable that had become slightly overripe; watching him, one had a sense that he was always winking at the audience, winking at the role that he had chosen to play, the stereotype of a slightly corrupt, old-fashioned senator. At best, “The Ev and Charlie Show,” as it became known, was a disaster, as if two burned-out old Shakespearean actors had been hired to cavort around at Kennedy’s request to play the part of a tired old opposition.
Kennedy also knew about the inner mechanics and desires of television producers. The television people wanted the best show, and the best show had him at his best. He talked CBS into televising a tour of the White House with Jackie. When the show was filmed, he was allowed a last-minute appearance. He knew immediately, even before it was over and before anyone looked at the film, that his tone was wrong, that he had been perhaps too flip, and he asked CBS to redo it. When the producers looked at the film they found he was right, and of course accommodated him.
When he did a special with all three networks, there was an agreement to film ninety minutes and cut to an hour. Some people watching the filming noticed that George Herman of CBS seemed to ask the toughest questions, and that when he did the President became vague. When the editing took place it was the network producer’s instinct, not the White House’s suggestion, to cut the weak answers. They weren’t sharp, they did not make a good show.
He was on occasion angry with television, but he usually overcame it. Once, after a network news broadcast on his handling of the steel crisis seemed more critical than he deemed appropriate, he called FCC director Newton Minow, demanding that he raise hell with network executives and threaten them about their licenses. Minow was not alarmed by the nakedness of the threat and did not do it. Kennedy called him the next day and thanked him for preventing a President from making fool of himself.
Nothing symbolized his sense of pleasure and ability with television better than a conversation he had with André Malraux. Malraux, Minister of Culture in that great democracy where the state controlled the one broadcast network, came to America and was surprised by the degree of independence of American news shows. He asked Kennedy why he put up with the Huntleys, Brinkleys, and Cronkites. Kennedy said that he didn’t mind as long as he got equal time. Then he laughed. He laughed because he knew he always got far more than equal time.
In that sense, John Kennedy changed the presidency more than any recent predecessor with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt, who had slipped so naturally into the radio presidency. Kennedy’s ascendancy, like Roosevelt’s, was a confluence of a man and a technology, of a new political force and a Politician with the skills and instincts to exploit it. The television audiences were acutely aware of style now. The President came not just into their towns but into their homes. He had attractive personal qualities, and occasionally dubious political qualities; he was therefore inclined to emphasize the personal side of the presidency. So it was not surprising that audiences judged him on a new scale of qualities, not necessarily the way they would have judged a politician in the past. Now what kind of man he was became paramount; what the feel of him was, what kind of family he had.