Television represented a quantum leap in the means available to a President to bypass the printed page. Yet, curiously, it took more than a decade of mass television before a President used it at its maximum power to win a particular battle. Political television started in the fifties, during which a nonpolitical President did not make a strong impression on the medium, except to project his personal qualities of earnestness and sincerity. Senator McCarthy and his antagonists, however, dramatized the political power of television, and cameras launched Adlai Stevenson at the 1952 convention and John Kennedy in the Nixon-Kennedy debates. But these were public events pressed home by an impersonal medium, not an impersonal medium commandeered for his own use by a President.

Before April 11, President Kennedy was interesting but not potent on television. He was impressive at his television press conferences not so much for what he said as for what he did not say, for his careful selection of words, for his irony. He seldom galvanized an audience. His was the passive voice, the subjunctive rnood, the non-committal adjective. “It would be inappropriate to comment…” or “I found the talks—ah—useful…” He may have been moved by several influences: a natural reserve in public; a sensitivity to his close election; a desire to maintain a nonpartisan official stature; a commitment to fighting hard in private and letting his enemies save face in public. In private, he showed other qualifies. He appears to have hypnotic powers over his antagonists, clutching them to his breast and releasing them to walk glassy-eyed out of the White House. Platoons of the opposition, like George Sokolsky, have walked out of private sessions with the President under an old-fashioned Irish spell. But to the general public he appeared cautious, courteous, and filled with limitless capacity for conciliation. Once, at his January 24 press conference, a flash of driving toughness came out, when he nipped a security-risk campaign in the bud, but apparently the U.S. Steel scouts did not diagram that play back at headquarters.

At 3:31 p.m. on April 11, at his thirtieth press conference, the President started his polemic against “a tiny handful of steel executives.” There was now no prudent circumspection and no personal reserve, but instead strong words and as fierce an emotion as John Kennedy permits himself on a platform. He spared nothing—patriotism, dying soldiers, and selfishness in time of peril. At 3:36 the battle against steel was over. Yet it would be twenty-four minutes before the correspondents would get to their telephones and hours before they would get into print.

In print, the President’s attack would appear in 312 morning papers the next day, in the hands of perhaps 24,000,000 readers. The wire services would carry most of the dramatic opening statement in their major stories. Most papers would not carry the verbatim transcript. The New York Times, The Wall Street journal, and The Washington Post (aggregate circulation: 1,700,000) and possibly half a dozen others regularly carry the full texts. The Associated Press would carry a condensed text, probably about half the total, on a subsidiary wire, as would United Press International. (They have no way of knowing how many clients regularly use it, one service estimating as low as six.) Practically all papers, in the discipline and tradition of printed news, would carry in their news stories not only the President’s most dramatic words, but also those of his adversaries who would have had time to reply before press time.

In addition, there would be the publishers’ editorial reactions. In the steel case there would be an initial period of shocked hesitation and then strong opposition to the President’s using any influence in wage and price determination and to the measures he used to fight the U.S. Steel increase. Some editorials would see the end of free enterprise in America and, in the televised statement, an event akin to Lenin’s entry into Petrograd. The editorials would have special influence within the business community (which tends to look to them for moral support) and serve to consolidate opinion there.

Ben Bagdikian was an assistant managing editor at The Washington Post, and later dean of the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. He wrote about the Washington press regularly for CJR in the 1960s and '70s.