He’d led allied armies to victory over Nazi Germany, only to find himself a decade later, a little nervous in front of the cameras in an echoey space of the Old Executive Office Building, ready to make history once more.
President Dwight Eisenhower told the press corps, “Well, I see we’re trying a new experiment this morning.” “I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out to be a negative influence.” It was the first presidential press conference to be recorded for television transmission. Americans saw those signature Ike grins and heard him complain about being asked a “loaded question” in the scratchy black and white of 1955 TV sets.
With that, an enlightening, controversial, and often showboating tradition entered the modern era, one that President Joe Biden would continue with his first White House press conference on Thursday. Keep an eye out for any negative influences.
In what historian Martha Joynt Kumar refers to as the “high-risk, high-reward” enterprise of presidential news conferences, Biden is a little or a lot behind his recent predecessors in opening himself up to questions.
Back to Bill Clinton, each of the last four presidents held one solo White House press conference in their first 60 days, before picking up the pace to varying degrees later.
Counting joint, frequently very brief news conferences with visiting foreign leaders, Donald Trump had held at least five, Hillary Clinton at least four, and Barack Obama at least two by that time. This year, the pandemic has driven international leaders away from the White House.
The Biden White House runs a tight ship, and Biden, a self-described “gaffe machine,” is well aware of his history of gaffes.
He gave few press conferences during the 2020 campaign and was frequently hunkered down in the pandemic. Despite this, he debated fellow Democrats a dozen times and Trump three times with no obvious negative impact on his or the country’s prospects.
Americans gained insight into the president’s thinking about Russian President Vladimir Putin — Biden called him a killer who “will pay a price” for U.S. election meddling — as well as the surge of young migrants at the border, a possibly delayed troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and more in one of the president’s last extended and open-ended sessions with the media before Thursday, an interview with ABC News.
Eisenhower’s press conference on Jan. 19, 1955, was one of many in the history of presidential press conferences tracked by Kumar, a White House expert.
Until his presidency, presidents held off-the-record press conferences, at which they informed the media about the country’s affairs and the workings of government without revealing their names.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential press conference. “The people should have a reasonably clear report on what the president is trying to do,” said Calvin Coolidge, who kept nearly 73 per year on average.
Franklin Roosevelt, a radio pioneer who perfected communications on all fronts and came close to matching Coolidge’s unrivaled rate of news conferences, called his favorite reporters to his office on a daily basis, relegating the ones he didn’t like to his “dunce club.”
Off the record meant allowing the president to rephrase his comments, which is unheard of today. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the audacious canceler of communists real and imagined in US government and culture, was the Kremlin’s “best asset,” Harry Truman announced at a March 1950 news conference.
“When one of the reporters said the president’s remark would ‘hit page one tomorrow,’ Truman realized he needed to soften his stance,” Kumar writes. “He ‘worked’ with reporters, allowing the following direct quote: ‘The biggest weapon that the Kremlin has is the partisan effort in the Senate to undermine the United States’ bipartisan foreign policy.’
When Eisenhower placed the news conferences on tape and allowed broadcasters to monitor them, such exploitation became untenable. Despite this, segments were not broadcast until later.
While Eisenhower wanted to take advantage of the nascent medium of television, he only did so in part. Live telecasts will not be permitted, according to press secretary James C. Hagerty.
John F. Kennedy was the one who ushered in the era of live, televised press conferences, and he excelled at it.
Kennedy held news conferences about twice a month, and he was smooth-talking, authoritative, and humorous.
Kumar claims that despite JFK’s charms and intelligence, he was met with a more hostile White House press corps. Part of this was due to the previous administration’s deception, which included initially informing Americans that the Soviets had shot down a U.S. weather plane when it was actually a spy plane. Despite this, open secrets about Kennedy’s behavior with women and his health issues were not discussed.
The adversarial relationship between the press and power grew stronger as a result of the Vietnam and Watergate debacles. The exercise’s performative nature, with the cameras watching, added to the effect.
Richard Nixon, like Trump before him, referred to the media as a “enemy.” Nixon, on the other hand, was the first president to hold White House press conferences during prime time. (In 1973, Nixon’s famous remark, “I’m not a crook,” was delivered at a question-and-answer session with newspaper editors at an Associated Press meeting in Florida, not at a White House press conference.)
Ronald Reagan, like Nixon, preferred prime time for its large audiences and prestige. He used the opulent East Room as a backdrop.
During this time, press conferences were as much, if not more, about watching a president think on his feet as they did about the policy substance.
Consider Trump: there’s been a lot of preening. Consider the harrowing, hour-long or longer theatrical, stream-of-consciousness monologues in which the president openly sought out friendly questions, mocked difficult ones, and peddled ideas based on what he saw on television.
There has been squirming, such as when Gerald Ford was asked if his pardon of Nixon could be interpreted as an admission of guilt by the disgraced president. “Uh, I think the acceptance of a pardon can be construed by many, if not all, as an admission of guilt,” Ford said slowly.
There have been several outbursts of frustration.
In 2015, when asked why he was “content” to tout the newly achieved nuclear agreement with Iran while that country was still keeping four Americans on false grounds, Obama was irritated. He had a grin on his face that wasn’t a smile.
“The idea that I’m happy when celebrating with American citizens imprisoned in Iranian jails is nonsense, and you should know better,” he said.
By today’s standards, the long-ago issue that Eisenhower discovered “loaded” in the Indian Treaty Room of the vast executive office building that bears his name was harmless. He was clearly asked to focus on his first two years in office and “tell us all about your expectations for the next two or even six.”
Compare that to a Clinton news conference on Feb. 6, 1998, a month after he lied in a televised speech that “I did not have sexual relations with that lady, Miss Lewinsky,” as evidence for his impeachment grew that fall.
In that news conference, he was asked when he would conclude that the crisis was too much to bear for his family and resign.
He said, stone-faced, “Never.”
Clinton was flanked by Tony Blair, the British prime minister, who grinned as if he wanted to be somewhere — somewhere — else at the time.