13 TV Moments That Defined the American Presidency

Introduction

The history of commanders on camera.

The advent of television irrevocably changed the political landscape, ushering a new era in which public image and mastery of the medium played an increasingly important role in the success—or failure—of a presidential administration. Some commanders in chief have used television to inspire the nation, while others have turned to it in times of sadness or scandal. These are some of the most iconic televised moments in presidential history.

September 4, 1951: President Truman Makes America’s First Live Nationwide Broadcast

Appropriately, President Truman ushered in the age of live, coast-to-coast TV with a speech on one of his signature programs: the U.S. occupation of Japan at the end of World War II. The groundbreaking remarks were broadcast to 87 television stations, and reached an estimated 30 million people—the largest TV audience to date.

Truman spoke from San Francisco, where he was attending a conference on post-war peace efforts in Japan. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1945 death, Truman took over the office of president and approved the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the bombing and the Japanese surrender, Truman approved a policy designed to turn Japan into a democratic nation that could never wage another war. Four days after the speech, Truman signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which set the end of occupation in motion.

Other memorable television moments:
Though Truman’s administration came early in the TV age, he did manage to make a few memorable outings on the small screen. As the first president to regularly appear on TV, he gave the first televised State of the Union address in 1947.

January 17, 1961: Dwight Eisenhower Warns of a “Military-Industrial Complex”

As Dwight D. Eisenhower prepared to leave office, he delivered a farewell address that contained a chilling warning—that the “military-industrial complex,” a powerful alliance between the arms industry and the United States military, posed a potent threat to American democracy. The speech, delivered as the Cold War became even chillier and both the U.S. and the USSR built up their militaries, couldn’t have been blunter. Without vigilance, Eisenhower warned, America might lose control over a system designed to protect them.

Eisenhower, beloved for his brave leadership during World War II, worried that the seemingly boundless economic expansion of the 1950s might blind Americans to the seriousness of the war and their own future. Ike’s worries were well founded: Today, the United States outspends every other country in the world. The term he coined has become as much a part of his presidential legacy as his deft maneuvering to end the Korean War and ensure domestic prosperity through infrastructure investments.

Other memorable TV moments:
The speech wasn’t the only warning Ike delivered during his presidency: In 1954, he delivered a speech that suggested if communists seized French Indochina (Vietnam), they might create a “domino effect” that shattered the rest of South Asia. His words foresaw the Vietnam War—and were used to justify U.S. involvement in the conflict.

September 12, 1962: John F. Kennedy Challenges America to Go to the Moon

JFK’s administration is remembered as a time of almost unlimited optimism. When the president stepped onto a Rice University podium to help whip up public support for the fledgling space program, he lived up to that reputation with a speech that turned the space race into a noble cause. Space-based competition between the U.S. and USSR had already switched into high gear with the launch of competing satellites and the first human orbits of Earth. Now, Kennedy promised, it was time to shoot for the moon—not just for the sake of beating the Soviets, but for the chance to challenge American technology and business, create new jobs and enrich human knowledge.

The hopeful speech worked: In 1969, the United States became the first country to put a man on the moon, and today space exploration is a rare point of collaboration between the United States, Russia and other countries. Today, it’s considered one of the high points of Kennedy’s hopeful presidency.

Other memorable TV moments:
Kennedy struck a hopeful note throughout his brief presidency, as when he urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country” during his 1961 inaugural speech and insisted on U.S. solidarity with Germany during his famed 1963 “Ich bin ein Berliner” address.

March 31, 1968: Lyndon B. Johnson Bows Out of the Race for President

It was a bombshell nobody expected: At the end of a speech about the state of the war in Vietnam, President Johnson abruptly announced he would not seek election for a second term. (Though Johnson had already served part of John F. Kennedy’s term after his assassination, he was entitled to a second full term on his own merits.) He withdrew at a moment of dramatic upheaval. The increasingly unpopular Vietnam War seemed as if it would never end, racial tensions were high and the Democratic Party was riddled with infighting.

Behind the scenes, though, Johnson, who was in poor health, worried he could not serve another term and that the stalemate in Vietnam could permanently destroy his legacy. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire to help instigate peace talks in Vietnam—the decision took up most of his memorable speech—peace talks broke down, riots flared after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and Johnson ended his term exhausted but relieved. Johnson’s refusal to run is now as much a part of his legacy as his signature Civil Rights Act.

Other memorable TV moments:
LBJ’s tumultuous presidency produced several other unforgettable television moments, as when he addressed Congress after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and told a joint session of Congress that “we shall overcome” in an impassioned plea for voting rights legislation.

November 17, 1973: Richard Nixon Tells the Nation That “I Am Not a Crook”

In 1973, Richard Nixon insisted he was not connected to the Watergate burglary, in one of the tensest exchanges ever recorded between a sitting president and the press. The exchange took place at Walt Disney World at the height of the scandal. Just a month earlier, Nixon had fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Despite his defiant words, Nixon was struggling to contain evidence of his involvement with the break-in and cover-up at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. As a result, what might have been a routine news conference devolved into a strained exchange with the press. When Nixon addressed the public to insist on his innocence, he had no idea he was creating a phrase that would become shorthand for his disastrous presidency—or that, less than a year later, he would resign the presidency in disgrace.

Other memorable TV moments:
One of Nixon’s most iconic televised moments happened during the 1952 presidential campaign, when the then-senator and vice presidential candidate took to the airwaves to defend himself against allegations of financial impropriety, in what became known as the “Checkers” speech. Two more memorable small-screen outings had to do with the Watergate scandal. On August 9, 1974, he resigned the presidency rather than face impeachment proceedings. The next day, he made an indelible impression as he waved goodbye, boarded a helicopter on the lawn of the White House, and left the presidency behind.

August 9, 1974: Gerald Ford Tells America its “Long National Nightmare” Is Over

Talk about one-liners: Immediately after being sworn in as the 38th President of the United States, Gerald Ford delivered remarks that included an unforgettable line that acknowledged the damage the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation had inflicted on the United States. During the speech, Ford, who had ascended to the vice presidency in 1974 when the sitting vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned after being investigated for corruption in his previous office, acknowledged that he had never been elected to the presidency. He took over an administration in shambles—one well summarized by his deft turn of phrase.

Ford’s presidency fared little better: Though the United States withdrew from Vietnam during his presidency, the American economy plummeted into recession and his controversial decision to pardon Nixon became a political flashpoint. In the end, Ford only ended up serving as president for 895 days and never served another term.

Other memorable TV moments:
Ford became as famous for his unpopular on-camera moves as his unconventional rise to the presidency. In 1974, he pardoned Richard Nixon on television in a speech that called Nixon’s ordeal “an American tragedy in which we have all played a part.” Two years later, he flubbed when he implied that the USSR had no influence in Eastern Europe during a televised debate.

July 15, 1979: Jimmy Carter Rues an American “Crisis of Confidence”

When Jimmy Carter faced the nation during a televised address in summer 1979, America was in the midst of a recession caused by an energy crisis. Though it had been six years since OPEC cut oil production in retaliation for the United States’ support of Israel, the economy was still stagnant. Inflation had driven up prices, unemployment was high, and the nation was still healing from both the disastrous Nixon presidency and the recently ended Vietnam War. In an attempt to address what he called a national “crisis of confidence,” Carter gave a live speech that encouraged the nation to pull together, come up with alternative energy solutions and move past an admitted public distrust in leadership.

Now known as the “Malaise Speech,” the address briefly raised public opinion of Carter and his administration. But soon after, it backfired. Carter’s candor about his perceived lack of leadership unintentionally became part of his presidential persona. He was handily defeated by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.

Other memorable TV moments:
Another one of Carter’s memorable speeches concerned a similarly bleak predicament: the failed mission to rescue Americans captured during the Iran Hostage Crisis. Like the malaise speech, Carter’s failure to set the hostages free—and his frank acceptance of the blame for its failure—helped tank his hopes for reelection.

June 12, 1987: Ronald Reagan Exhorts Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear Down This Wall”

When President Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate during a celebration of Berlin’s 750th birthday, it had been more than 25 years since the barrier that symbolized the Iron Curtain was erected. The Cold War was even older than the Wall, and though the USSR had slightly relaxed its stance toward the West, relations were far from thawed. In his provocative speech, Reagan challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to take his so-called “glasnost” or “openness” policy a step further and dismantle the ideological and physical barriers that still separated the Soviet world from the West.

Despite the outward strength of Reagan’s words, the speech was hotly debated by his own staff, which differed over whether it would help or hurt American foreign policy. Nevertheless, it contributed to Reagan’s reputation as an uncompromising leader. Though historians differ on whether the speech hastened the USSR’s collapse and it was largely ignored when it was given, Reagan’s words seemed almost prophetic two years later, when jubilant Berliners literally tore down the wall as the Soviet bloc began to crumble.

Other memorable TV moments:
Reagan, a former actor, was known for his defiant anti-Soviet rhetoric on television. In 1983, he delivered another memorable rhetorical blow to the USSR when he referred to the regime as an “evil empire” while speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals.

August 5, 1990: George H.W. Bush Says Saddam Hussein’s Aggression “Will Not Stand”

During a few brief remarks given to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, President Bush uttered words that would come to define his presidency. Three days earlier, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait—an action that Bush tersely characterized as unacceptable aggression in the televised exchange. Those words were uncharacteristically bold for Bush, who usually presented a low-key public persona. Many of his advisors had argued in favor of stronger economic sanctions against Iraq, and General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was reportedly taken aback by Bush’s remarks. But, Powell later noted, it was pure George H.W. Bush. “He had listened quietly to his advisors. He had consulted by phone with world leaders. And then, taking his own counsel, he had come to this momentous decision and revealed it at the first opportunity.”

At the time, the U.S. and a coalition of NATO and Middle Eastern allies were already planning Operation Desert Shield, a military buildup in Saudi Arabia designed to intimidate Hussein into backing down. He didn’t: In January 1991, Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm and the brief Gulf War began.

Other memorable TV moments:
Bush is best known for a televised campaign promise—one that he ended up breaking. At the 1988 Republican National Convention, his “Read my lips. No new taxes” pledge became an instant cultural touchstone. However, he broke the promise in 1990, when he reversed the promise and agreed to a tax hike.

January 26, 1988: President Clinton Insists He “Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman”

As the nation roiled with rumors that Bill Clinton had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, the President himself took to television to try to persuade the American people that he had not behaved inappropriately. His famous one-liner, uttered with the first lady at his side, was uttered during a press conference. Designed to shut down public concerns and provide a forceful public denial of the affair, the statement was just the beginning of a months-long sex scandal that culminated in allegations of obstructions of justice.

Six months later, Clinton faced a grand jury and admitted to an “improper physical relationship” with Lewinsky. It wasn’t enough: On December 19, 1998, after a lengthy investigation, the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Clinton for lying under oath and obstruction of justice. Though Clinton was not removed from office, the scandal was a defining facet of his presidency, and his confident denial of the affair helped lay the foundation for his impeachment.

Other memorable TV moments:
Clinton was a powerful television presence—not least because he knew how to have fun. In 1992, during his presidential run, he visited Arsenio Hall’s hit show and played the saxophone in a bid to differentiate himself from the competition. Two years later, he joked about his preference for briefs over boxers during an MTV-sponsored town hall.

September 14, 2001: George W. Bush Takes to the Bullhorn at Ground Zero

On September 11, 2001, American history—and the trajectory of George W. Bush’s presidency—changed forever when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At the time, Bush was only nine months into his presidency. The 9/11 attacks were his first serious crisis as president, and the event that would indelibly define his legacy in the years that followed.

Three days after the attacks, the president stood at Ground Zero and briefly addressed rescue workers using a bullhorn. The remarks tapped into the anguish and anxiety of a nation still reeling from the attacks, as evidenced by the connection Bush managed to forge with rescue workers as he assured them they could be heard. Bush’s remarks are particularly poignant given rescue workers’ long struggle for recognition and benefits related to the health effects of their work at Ground Zero.

Other memorable TV moments:
The September 11 attacks inspired several of the president’s other most memorable moments on television: His brief statement that “freedom will be defended” on the day of the attacks while Air Force One refueled, his address to the nation from the Oval Office later that evening in which he said that American freedom was under attack, and his address to a joint session of Congress nine days later, in which he accused al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden of perpetrating the attacks.

December 14, 2012: President Obama Cries Over the Sandy Hook Massacre

Just hours after 20 young children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history, President Obama took to the White House podium to express his shock and sorrow. His tearful address—and the shooting itself—helped stoke a national debate about gun control.

Obama’s tears were a rare break from his usual public stoicism, but were mocked by some conservative pundits. Nonetheless, Obama cried again during his speech at a prayer vigil in Newtown, Connecticut, urging the nation to reconsider gun control and prevent further tragedies like Newtown. His emotional pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears: Despite executive actions designed to curb gun violence, a Republican-run Congress soon defeated his attempts to limit gun sales and outlaw assault rifles.

Other memorable TV moments:
Obama’s historic rise to the highest office in the land began with a memorable speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The young Senator’s keynote address on the “politics of hope” thrust him onto the national political stage and gave him a reputation as an orator—one he upheld during speeches like his 2008 victory speech in Chicago’s Hyde Park, in which he encouraged Americans to respond to doubt and cynicism with the words “Yes, we can.”

September 19, 2017: President Trump Threatens to “Totally Destroy” North Korea in UN Speech

In his first speech before the United Nations, President Trump furthered his “America First” doctrine—and challenged North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with a threat to “totally destroy” North Korea if the nation’s threats to the region or to the U.S. continue. It was the latest salvo in an ongoing feud between the two leaders, who have traded barbs—and legitimate threats—on the world stage since Trump’s inauguration. Kim has repeatedly defied sanctions, threats and other actions designed to curb North Korea’s suspected development of nuclear weapons. In the meantime, he is locked in a war of words with the president, who mocked the leader as “Rocket Man” during the UN speech.

Kim responded with similar belligerence, calling Trump a “dotard” and warning him that he was prepared to take “the highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

Other memorable TV moments:
President Trump’s unabashed rhetoric and colorful language were on display long before he became president, as when he announced his presidential bid and vowed to “make America great again” in 2015 and defended his use of vulgar language in a leaked 2005 Access Hollywood tape as “locker room talk” in 2016.

Article Details:

13 TV Moments That Defined the American Presidency

  • Author

    Erin Blakemore

  • Website Name

    History.com

  • Year Published

    2017

  • Title

    13 TV Moments That Defined the American Presidency

  • URL

    http://www.history.com/news/13-tv-moments-that-defined-american-presidency

  • Access Date

    November 23, 2017

  • Publisher

    A+E Networks