John F. Kennedy—born 100 years ago on May 29—pioneered the live, televised, no-holds barred press conference that became a staple of the modern presidency. His approach provides both lessons for, and a stark contrast with, the way that President Donald Trump has met the press.
Kennedy held an extraordinary number of press conferences, 64 in all, in his too-brief time in office, an average of two a month, showcasing his always congenial even if sometimes contentious relationship with reporters.
“He was articulate, thoughtful, handsome and hip, a man who could think on his feet,” says Sid Davis, who covered Kennedy and served as Washington bureau chief for NBC News and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company.
It was a breath of air after the Eisenhower years, when reporters had to wait for clarification of what the president said before quoting him directly. Eisenhower had “a syntax problem” that resulted in “the Hagerty Rule,” says Davis, named after Ike’s press secretary James Hagerty and requiring reporters to hold off on quoting the President until the transcript was cleaned up.
Because Kennedy spoke for himself, often and in clear, crisp sentences, Pierre Salinger, his press secretary, “never had to go out the next day and say, ‘what the president meant to say was…” recalls Melody Miller, longtime spokesperson for the Kennedy family.
His press conferences were such a hit that almost immediately the White House moved them to a larger venue, a State Department auditorium that could seat 800 or more. The White House press corps grumbled at first, afraid every “yahoo” would attend, but quickly settled into being part of the show.
Kennedy and Salinger were ahead of their time in understanding the mix of news and entertainment, and JFK played this new on-air role for an American president to the hilt. He had fun toying with media titans in exchanges that were never mean-spirited, and let the voters in on the joke.
May Craig was a popular foil. One of the few women in the press corps, she was fearless, and she wasn’t young. “She was a draw,” says Davis. “People wanted to see this grandmother take on the president.”
A columnist for the Portland Press Herald, she had covered FDR and, as a war correspondent, WWII. She was second only to The Washington Post’s David Broder in her number of appearances on “Meet the Press.” She always wore a hat and dress gloves, even on television.
Kennedy handled her questions deftly, shuffling a bit at the podium as though she had really zinged him, putting his head down, bashful-like, before responding. In one memorable exchange, she asks, “What have you done for the women according to the promise in the platform?”
“I am sure we haven’t done enough,” Kennedy replies to appreciative laughter from the mostly male press corps. “I strongly believe in equal pay for equal work, and I’m glad you reminded me of it!”
“We were props to some extent,” says Davis, who said Kennedy had his favorites and those reporters could count on getting called upon. Salinger, the press secretary, was known to plant questions. “I never got one, I’m sorry to say,” says Davis, but he knew how it worked. Salinger would suggest to a reporter, “If you ask the president this question, you’ll get an interesting answer.”
“It’s not something people raised hell about because usually the questions were pretty good,” Davis told The Daily Beast. “There are times when a president wants to say something that is highly important in foreign policy – about (Soviet President Nikita) Khrushchev for example.
“If he gives a speech from the Oval Office, it raises the decibel level of the statement. You get the same result and you don’t raise hackles and create a foreign-policy crisis if a reporter asks the question.”
The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 tested Kennedy’s mettle when satellite photos confirmed the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Kennedy, in Chicago overnight for a political event, cut his trip short.
Reporters were woken before dawn and told they were heading back to Washington because the president had a bad cold.
Rumors that something was up took ominous tones throughout the day as limos arrived at the White House and Jackie Kennedy flew back from Middleburg, Virginia in a helicopter, conveying a sense of urgency. She normally would have returned by car.
At seven o’clock that evening — October 22, 1962 — Kennedy told the nation about the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba. He explained he had ordered a “quarantine” of all offensive weapons arriving by ship to Cuba, stopping just short of a blockade, which would have been an act of war. Kennedy chose the word.
Tapes released from the 13 days of deliberations with the Joint Chiefs and key advisors before the Soviets backed down show “how smart he was, how tough he was, and how he saved the world,” says Davis, a view that is widely shared.
Every time Kennedy left the room, Air Force General Curtis LeMay would say, “What does he know? He was only a Lieutenant JG (Junior Grade).” For the military brass, there were only two options, invade or bomb.
“It’s bone-chilling to see what Kennedy did,” says Davis, gambling the Soviets would not respond while keeping B-52s in the air and ready to strike.
It was later revealed that Kennedy had agreed to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey, which were aimed at the Soviet Union. “Knowing history the way Kennedy did, when you’re eyeball to eyeball, you’ve got to give the other guy something. You’ve got to give Khrushchev a way to win,” says Davis. “Those missiles were old and leaking fuel that was eroding the metal. They were useless. He gave away nothing.”
Davis was one of three pool reporters on Kennedy’s fateful trip to Dallas. He witnessed the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One as it prepared to fly JFK’s body back to Washington. He stayed behind at Love Field to brief the rest of the press corps. “It was selfish on my part so I could file my story,” he confesses, “but I couldn’t file until I gave the story to the rest of the press.”
Air Force One had been hidden away in a secure part of the field where another assassin couldn’t find it. Davis ran back and forth on the tarmac trying to find the other reporters before the press bus finally arrived. He briefed them from his notes. “It was a helluva day,” he says. “Tom Wicker from the New York Times kept asking questions. I hadn’t filed and I was so eager to do so.”
Maybe by today’s standards, reporters got too close to the president, but then so did the voters.