Saturday, January 25, 2014

JFK's 1st Presidential Press Conference


Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) Fifty-three years ago today, January 25, 1961, John F. Kennedy held his first press conference as President of the United States at the State Department Auditorium here in the Nation's Capital.

                   JFK Press Conference
                     November 20, 1962
                   Photo by Abbie Rowe
                     JFK Library Image

Breaking with tradition, President Kennedy allowed his meetings with the press to be televised live.  Previously, conferences were held in private, usually in the presidential oval office.  

Sixty-five million Americans in 21.5 million homes reportedly tuned in for the first Kennedy press conference.

JFK posted an average television audience of 18 million viewers for all his news conferences.

JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who sat in a chair on stage to the left of the President's podium, said...

"(His) ideas and philosophy were best displayed during those moments of truth when he stood alone before the representatives of the press..."

Mr. Salinger said that JFK was well prepared for each of his news conferences.  

President Kennedy did his homework for the first and subsequent conferences by having his White House staff come up with a list of questions they thought he might be asked at the next press conference.  

This gave the President the opportunity to form his responses and ask his staff to gather more information on a topic if needed.

When the double doors of the auditorium opened, John F. Kennedy would stride through at a fast pace and all reporters would respectfully stand. 

When he reached the podium, adorned with the Seal of the President of the United States, all reporters would take their seats.

Installing the Presidential Seal

In many of his conferences, President Kennedy would have a brief opening statement and then came the reporters' questions.

Newsmen and women who had questions would stand and say...

"Mr. President!"

Mr. Kennedy would point at one of the reporters while the others would sit back down and wait for their next opportunity.

JFK+50 has selected two questions and answers from the first press conference.  The full text of the conference is available on the internet.

Question #1

"Mr. President,

Does your administration plan to take any steps to solve the problem at Fayette County, Tennessee where tenant farmers have been evicted from their homes because they voted last November and now must live in tents?

The President...

"The Congress...enacted legislation which placed very clear responsibility on the executive branch to protect the right of voting. 

I support that legislation. 

I am extremely interested in making sure that every American is given the right to cast his vote without prejudice to his rights as a citizen. 

And, therefore, I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection with all vigor."

Question #2

Mr. President,

Would you consider reopening diplomatic relations in Cuba?

The President...

"We have no plan at the present to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba...because of the factors which are involved on that island."


Kennedy and the Press:  The News Conferences, Edited and Annotated by Harold W. Chase and Allen H. Lerman, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1965.


In the past 90 years, Presidents of the United States have met with the press with a varied degree of regularity.

Calvin Coolidge, who took office in 1923 and served until March 1929, held 407 press conferences. 

Mr. Coolidge averaged 72.90 a year and that statistic places him first among all chief executives in total number of conferences held.

This might come as a surprise who remember Coolidge as being called "Silent Cal" because of his super quiet demeanor. 

There's an old story that describes a very talkative lady sitting next to President Coolidge at a White House dinner.  She apparently was more interested in talking than eating while the President was more interested in eating than talking.

Finally, at the end of the meal, exasperated, she turns to Coolidge and says...

"Mr. President, I have a bet with some of my friends that I could get you to say more than 2 words at this dinner tonight."

Coolidge turned to the lady, looked her up and down, and without changing his expression, said...

"You lose."

                       President Coolidge with 
                  Press Photographers (1924)
                   Library of Congress Photo 

President Ronald Wilson Reagan, in contrast, known as the "Great Communicator," held only 46 news conferences in 8 years with an average of only 5.75 a year.

That record is even worse than President Richard M. Nixon, who detested the press.  Nixon held 39 conferences from 1969 to 1974, averaging 7.03 a year.

Following is a list of presidents in the order of average press conferences. While JFK is far down the list, keep in mind that his term lasted only 2 years and 10 months.

Coolidge (407) 72.90
FDR (881) 72.66
Hoover (268) 67.00
Truman (324) 41.73
G. Bush (137) 34.25
GW Bush (210) 26.25
LBJ (135) 26.16
Eisenhower (193) 24.13
Clinton (193) 24.13
JFK (65) 22.89
Obama (80) 20.00
Carter (59) 14.75
Nixon (39) 7.03
Reagan (46) 5.75