On this day in 1961, President John F. Kennedy becomes the first U.S. president to hold a live televised news conference.
From a podium in the State Department auditorium, Kennedy read a prepared statement regarding the famine in the Congo, the release of two American aviators from Russian custody and impending negotiations for an atomic test ban treaty. He then opened the floor for questions from reporters, answering queries on a variety of topics including relations with Cuba, voting rights and food aid to impoverished Americans.
Ever since his televised presidential debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, Kennedy had been aware of the media’s enormous power to sway public opinion. On that day, Kennedy had appeared rested, well-groomed and in control. Nixon, on the other hand, was not as telegenic as Kennedy and appeared sweaty and flustered. His five o’clock shadow created more of a stir than his responses to the moderator’s questions.
Kennedy knew that, in a televised news conference, his appearance would count almost as much as what he said. On this day in 1961, the president exhibited a calm demeanor and responded to reporters’ questions with intelligence and decorum. When discussing the common practice of leaking official information to Cold War enemies, he admitted very ample information [is] given so that the enemy can make a determination as to our strength, but on matters which involve the security of the United Statesthe press and the Executive should attempt to reach a responsible decision. I do not believe that the stamp National Security’ should be put on mistakes of the administration. But I must say that I do not hold the view that all matters and all information which is available to the Executive should be made available at all times, and I don’t think any member of the press does. Kennedy’s ability to project charm, intelligence, strength and openness defined the presidential image in the age of mass media.