U.S. Presidency & Television
by Roderick P. Hart and Mary Triece
from the MBC's Encyclopedia of Television

Ten 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:

September 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.

January 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.

January 25, 1961 : John Kennedy's Press Conference

Before 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.

February 27, 1968 : Walter Cronkite's Evaluation of the Vietnam War

Lyndon 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 included.

November 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 Speech

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 rare.

January 20, 1981 -- Inauguration of Ronald Reagan

Ronald 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 no more.

January 16, 1991 -- George Bush's Declaration of the Gulf War

From 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.

October 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.

April 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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See also Political Processes and Television; Presidential Nominating Conventions and Television; Press Conference; Reagan, Ronald; U.S. Congress; Watergate