Presidency & Television
Roderick P. Hart and Mary Triece
the MBC's Encyclopedia of Television
dates, some momentous, some merely curious, tell the story
of presidential television. In its own way, each date sheds
light on the complex relationship between the U.S. presidency
and the American television industry. Over the years, that
relationship has grown complex and tempestuous (virtually
every president from Harry Truman through Bill Clinton has
left office disaffected with the nation's press). More than
anything else, however, this relationship has been symbiotic--the
president and the press now depend upon one another for
sustenance. Ten dates explain why:
23, 1952 : Richard Nixon's "Checkers" Speech
Oddly, it was Richard Nixon who discovered the political
power of the new medium. Richard Nixon, who was pilloried
by the press throughout his career, nonetheless discovered
the salvific influence of television. Imaginatively, aggressively,
Mr. Nixon used television in a way it had never been used
before to lay out his personal finances and his cultural
virtues and, hence, to save his place on the Republican
national team (and, ultimately, his place in the American
political pantheon). That same year, 1952, also witnessed
the first televised coverage of a national party convention
and the first TV advertisements. But it was Nixon's famous
speech that turned the tide from a party-based to a candidate-controlled
political environment. By using television as he did--personally,
candidly, visually (his wife Pat sat demurely next to him
during the broadcast)--Mr. Nixon single-handedly created
a new political style.
19, 1955 : Dwight Eisenhower's Press Conference
When he agreed to let the television cameras into the White
House for the first time in American history, Dwight Eisenhower
changed the presidency in fundamental ways. Until that point,
the White House press corps had been a cozy outfit but very
much on the president's leash or, at least, the lesser partner
in a complex political arrangement. Television changed that.
The hue and cry let out by the deans of U.S. print journalism
proved it, as did television's growing popularity among
the American people. More proof awaited. It was not long
after Dwight Eisenhower opened the doors to television that
American presidents found themselves arranging their work
days around network schedules. To have a political announcement
receive top billing on the nightly news, after all, meant
that it had to be made by 2:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.
If the news to be shared was bad news, the slowest news
days--Saturday and Sunday--would be chosen to carry the
announcement. These may seem like small expediencies but
they presaged a fundamental shift of power in Washington,
D.C. After Eisenhower, television was no longer a novelty
but a central premise in all political logic.
25, 1961 : John Kennedy's Press Conference
Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton there was John Kennedy. No
American president has better understood television than
these three. By holding the first live press conference
in the nation's history, Kennedy showed that boldness and
amiability trump all suits in an age of television. In his
short time in office Mr. Kennedy also showed (1) that all
communication, even presidential communication, must be
relational; (2) that the substance of one's remarks is irrelevant
if one cannot say it effortlessly; (3) that being "on line"
and "in real time" bring a special energy to politics. Prescient
as he was, Mr. Kennedy would therefore not have been surprised
to learn that 50% of the American people now find television
news more believable and more attractive than print news
(which attracts a mere quarter of the populace). Mr. Kennedy
would also not be surprised at the advent of CNN, the all-news,
all-day channel, nor would he be surprised to learn that
C-SPAN (Congress' channel) has also become popular in certain
quarters. Being the innovator he was, John Kennedy fundamentally
changed the temporal dimensions of American politics. Forever
more, his successors would be required to perform the presidency
during each moment of each day they held office.
27, 1968 : Walter Cronkite's Evaluation of the Vietnam War
Johnson, we are told, knew he had lost the Vietnam war when
CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite, declared it a quagmire
during an evening documentary. To be sure, Cronkite's hard-hitting
special was nuanced and respectful of the presidency, but
it also brought proof to the nation's living rooms that
the President's resolve had been misplaced. Cronkite's broadcast
was therefore an important step in altering the power balance
between the White House and the networks. CBS' Dan Rather
continued that trend, facing-down Richard Nixon during one
cantankerous press conference and, later, George Bush during
an interview about the Iran-Contra scandal. Sam Donaldson
and Ted Koppel of ABC News also took special delight in
deflating political egos, as did CNN's Peter Arnett who
frustrated George Bush's efforts during the Gulf War by
continuing to broadcast from the Baghdad Hilton even as
U.S. bombs were falling on that city. Some attribute the
press's new aggressiveness to their somnolescence during
the Watergate affair, but it could also be credited to the
replacement of politics' old barter system, which featured
material costs and rewards, by an entertainment-based celebrity
system featuring personal achievements and rivalries. In
this latter system, it is every man for himself, the president
25, 1968 : Inauguration of the White House's Office of Communication
One of Richard Nixon's first acts as president was to appoint
Herb Klein to oversee a newly enlarged unit in the White
House that would coordinate all out-going communications.
This act, perhaps more than any other, signalled that the
new president would be an active player in the persuasion
game and that he would deal with the mass media in increasingly
innovative ways. Perhaps Mr. Nixon sensed the trends scholars
would later unearth: (1) that citizens who see a political
speech in person react far more favorably than those who
see it through television reporters' eyes; (2) that the
average presidential "soundbite" has been reduced to 9.8
seconds in the average nightly news story; and (3) that
negative news stories about the president have increased
over time. This is the bad news. The good news is that 97%
of CBS' nightly newscasts feature the president (usually
as the lead story) and that 20% of a typical broadcast will
be devoted to comings and goings in the White House. In
other words, the president is the fulcrum around which television
reportage pivots and, hence, he is well advised to monitor
carefully the information he releases (or refuses to release).
September 17, 1976 -- Gerald Ford's Pasadena
Neither Mr. Ford's address nor the occasion were memorable.
His was a standard stump speech, this time at the annual
reception of the Pasadena Golden Circle. The speech's sheer
banality signalled its importance: Ford spoke to the group
not because he needed to convince them of something but
because their predictable, on-camera applause would certify
his broader worthiness to the American people. Ford gave
some 200 speeches of this sort during the 1976 campaign.
Unlike Harry Truman, who spoke to all-comers on the village
green during the 1948 election, Jerry Ford addressed such
"closed" audiences almost exclusively during his reelection
run. In addition, Ford and his successors spoke in ritualistic
settings 40% of the time since bunting, too, photographs
well. The constant need for media coverage has thereby turned
the modern president into a continual campaigner and the
White House into a kind of national booking agency. It is
little wonder, then, that the traditional press conference,
with its contentiousness and unpredictability, has become
20, 1981 -- Inauguration of Ronald Reagan
Reagan and television have become American cliches. Reagan
grew up with television and television with him. By the
time he became president, both had matured. Reagan brought
to the camera what the camera most prized: a strong visual
presence and a vaunted affability. Mr. Reagan was the rare
kind of politician who even liked his detractors and television
made those feelings obvious. Reagan also had the ability
to concretize the most abstract of issues--deficits, territorial
jurisdictions, nuclear stalemates. By finding the essential
narrative in these matters, and then by humanizing those
narratives, Reagan produced his own unique style. Television
favors that style since it is, after all, the most intimate
of the mass media, with its ability to show emotion and
to do so in tight-focus. So it is not surprising that political
advertising has now become Reaganesque--visual, touching,
elliptical, never noisy or brash. Like Mr. Reagan, modern
political advertising never extends its stay; it says in
thirty seconds all that needs to be said and then it says
16, 1991 -- George Bush's Declaration of the Gulf War
the beginning, George Bush was determined not to turn the
Gulf War into another Vietnam. His military commanders shared
that determination. But what, exactly, are the lessons of
Vietnam? From the standpoint of television they are these:
(1) make it an air war, not a ground war, because ground
soldiers can be interviewed on camera; (2) make it a short
war, not a long war, because television has a short attention
span; and (3) make it a technical war, not a political war,
because Americans love the technocratic and fall out with
one another over ends and means. Blessedly, the Gulf War
was short and, via a complex network of satellite feeds,
it entertained the American people with its sumptuous visuals:
SCUD missiles exploding, oil-slicks spreading, yellow ribbons
flying. Iraq's Saddam Hussein fought back--on television--in
avuncular poses with captured innocents and by staying tuned
to CNN from his bunker. The Gulf War therefore marked an
almost postmodern turn in the history of warfare, with the
texts it produced now being better remembered than the deaths
it caused. What such a turn means for the presidency, or
for humankind, has yet to be determined.
25, 1992 -- Richmond, Virginia Debate
Several trends converged to produce the second presidential
debate of 1992. In the capital of the Old South, Bush, Clinton
and Perot squared off with one another in the presence of
two hundred "average Americans" who questioned them for
some ninety minutes. The debate's format, not its content,
became its headline: the working press had been cut out
of the proceedings and few seemed to mourn their passing.
The resident of the United States face-to-face with the
populace--here, surely, was Democracy Recaptured. The 1992
campaign expanded upon this theme, with the candidates repairing
to the cozy studio (and cozy questions) of talk-show host
Larry King. Thereafter, they made the rounds of the morning
talk-over-coffee shows. The decision to seek out these friendly
climes followed from the advice politicians had been receiving
for years: choose your own audience and occasion, forsake
the press, emphasize your humanity. Coupled with fax machines,
E-mail, cable specials, direct-mail videos, and the like,
these "alternative media formats" completed a cycle whereby
the president became a rhetorical entrepreneur and the nation's
press an afterthought.
20, 1993 -- Bill Clinton's MTV Appearance
Not a historic date, perhaps, but a suggestive one. It was
on this date that Bill Clinton discussed his underwear with
the American people (briefs, not boxers, as it turned out).
Why would the leader of the free world unburden himself
like this? Why not? In television's increasingly postmodern
world, all texts--serious and sophomoric--swirl together
in the same discontinuous field of experience. To be sure,
Mr. Clinton made his disclosure because he had been asked
to do so by a member of the MTV generation, not because
he felt a sudden need to purge himself. But in doing so
Clinton exposed several rules connected to the new phenomenology
of politics: (1) because of television's celebrity system,
presidents are losing their distinctiveness as social actors
and hence are often judged by standards formerly used to
assess rock singers and movie stars; (2) because of television's
sense of intimacy, the American people feel they know their
presidents as persons and hence no longer feel the need
for party guidance; (3) because of the medium's archly cynical
worldview, those who watch politics on television are increasingly
turning away from the policy sphere, years of hyper-familiarity
having finally bred contempt for politics itself. For good
and ill, then, presidential television grew apace between
1952 and the present. It began as a little-used, somewhat
feared, medium of exchange and transformed itself into a
central aspect of American political culture. In doing so,
television changed almost everything about life in the White
House. It changed what presidents do and how they do it.
It changed network programming routines, launched an entire
subset of the American advertising industry, affected military
strategy and military deployment, and affected how and why
voters vote and for whom they cast their ballots. In 1992,
Ross Perot of Dallas, Texas tested the practical limits
of this technology by buying sufficient airtime to make
himself an instant candidate as well as an instantly serious
candidate. History records that Mr. Perot failed to achieve
his goal. But given his billions and given television's
capacity to mold public opinion, Perot, or someone like
him, may succeed at some later time. This would add an eleventh
important date to the history of presidential television.
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also Political Processes and Television; Presidential Nominating
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