The first live press conference – 57 years ago today

Today is the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s first live TV press conference. It was held five days after his inauguration as President of the United States. He clearly wanted to start as he intended to continue – the people’s president.

This news conference, in 1961, was unprecedented. Unedited, and with no time delay, it was JFK’s way of speaking directly to the American people. You can listen to the broadcast here, and read the transcript in full.

JFK opens with a word about the upcoming meetings in Geneva which would review the atomic test ban. He follows with an update on the famine in the Congo and how the U.S. will support aid relief efforts. JFK finishes with the good news of the release of two Air Force crewman detained by the Soviets.

In our current climate of fake news, the candour of JFK’s statements is refreshing. He is clearly trying to connect with the U.S. populace. His answers to the press questions which follow his opening statement show a quick wit and mastery of detail.

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

THE PRESIDENT: The Congress, of course, enacted legislation which placed very clearly responsibility on the Executive Branch to protect the right of voting. I supported 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.

And, in retrospect, the last question of the news conference was quite a prescient query:

QUESTION: Mr. President, on a related subject, without being morbid, have you given any consideration to the problem which President Eisenhower resolved with his Vice President; that is, the problem of succession in the case of injury, illness, or some incapacitation? Have you thought of some agreement with the Vice President, such as your predecessor had, or some other?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes — well, I haven’t developed that at this present time, though I do think that President Eisenhower’s decision was a good one, and I think it would be a good precedent. Nothing has been done on it as yet, but I think it would be a good matter which we could proceed on.

A lot is written about JFK’s death, but not much about how he started. He was young, he was liberal, and he had vision.

I had the opportunity to visit the JFK Presidential Library in Boston last summer (pictured above). JFK certainly wasn’t perfect, but the library exhibit tells the story of a man who looked to the future. He invested in the U.S. space program, pledging that America would reach the moon before the end of the decade.

He believed in peace. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., writes:

On November 22nd, 1963, my uncle, president John F. Kennedy, went to Dallas intending to condemn as “nonsense” the right-wing notion that “peace is a sign of weakness.” He meant to argue that the best way to demonstrate American strength was not by using destructive weapons and threats but by being a nation that “practices what it preaches about equal rights and social justice,” striving toward peace instead of “aggressive ambitions.”

The legacy of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is immense – but it all started back in 1961 as a fresh-faced president who was brave enough to allow a live news conference.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com.

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7 Comments

  • Kirsten, Thank you for that. I remember it all so well. It seemed then that anything was possible in a more enlightened liberal world. What a contrast in grace, wit and intelligence with the present occupant of the White House.

    Some may point to his personal failings, but notwithstanding, he was still a very great man.

    I also remember the night he died. We were stunned and tears flowed. The following evening was the Sixtieth Anniversary Dinner of the National League of Young Liberals in the House of Commons. Jo Grimond was the main speaker and the daughters of Asquith and Lloyd George were also present. It was a very subdued occasion.

  • Kirsten johnson 26th Jan '18 - 9:59am

    Thank you, David, for sharing your memories of JFK’s assassination and the Liberal dinner the next evening. Very moving.

    And thanks, Paul, for finding the video and posting.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Jan '18 - 1:08pm

    Very good from Kirsten.

    It is up to those of us , like our friends and colleagues here, Paul, David, who are of the more progressive and Liberal views, to continue to explain , whatever age group,we maybe, or we might explain too, the real John F Kennedy.

    The centenary year of his birth 2017, was one in which I wrote articles and made comments as a eulogy to his memory on more than one site, as well as became a subscriber to the Kennedy Library news feed, very good, their work terrific.

    Some conservatives are claiming him. It is because liberals, here and in the America, have decided that centre and centre left , is not exciting and liberal, their interpretation, enough. JFK was a moderate, a progressive, and, in modern parlance, a self identifying Liberal. His speech to the Liberal Party of New York, which I also subscribe to, in which he, like FDR years earlier, got their nomination, is one of the best from him, one of the best on Liberalism, also available on you tube and at the excellent website of the Kennedy Library.

    His press conferences, were exemplary, witty, serious, intelligent, as with the man.

  • Simon McGrath 27th Jan '18 - 10:01am

    all excellent stuff. of course Kennedy didnt actually achieve anything on civil rights – that was down to LBJ

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jan '18 - 12:38pm

    According to a documentary on Channel 5, which I regret I have since deleted, the weapons and ammunition which Lee Harvey Oswald had would not have caused Mrs. Kennedy to be covered in the body parts of her husband.

  • @ Simon McGrath “of course Kennedy didn’t actually achieve anything on civil rights – that was down to LBJ”. As one who lived in and remembers those times, that is a partial truth, Simon.

    In May, 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy sent 400 federal marshals to protect the freedom riders and urged the Interstate Commerce Commission to order the desegregation of interstate travel.

    In 1962, President Kennedy mobilized the National Guard and sent federal troops to the campus to enable James Meredith to be enrolled and integration in Ole Miss.

    In 1963 Governor George Wallace of Alabama defended “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” In June 1963, he stood “in the schoolhouse door” to prevent two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. To protect the students and secure admission, President Kennedy federalised the Alabama National Guard. On June 11, he addressed the nation, invoked federal authority, and sent several thousand troops to an Alabama air base. He also speeded up the drafting of a comprehensive Civil Rights bill.

    After the assassination, against the background of public grief, LBJ was able to implement Kennedy’s Bill

    @ Richard Underhill I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I don’t want to be reminded of gratuitous unproven stuff like that.

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