This article from CJR's archives is presented as part of our 50th anniversary celebration.
Radio, on the other hand, was a clear channel from the White House into the voter’s living room. But Roosevelt was chary of striking too hard. “I am purposely avoiding use of the air because to use it at the controversial stage of a controversial legislative body spells more controversy,” he wrote to Colonel Edward M. House in 1934. (Four years later FDR praised U.S. Steel during a Fireside Chat: “Today a great steel company announced a reduction in prices with a view to stimulating business recovery, and I was gratified to know that this reduction involved no wage cut.” The next day U.S. Steel aimed a statement at Roosevelt saying it was by no means committed to keeping up wages and making plain the President deserved no credit for the price cut. Plus ça change.) By 1941, Roosevelt so clearly saw radio as a counter measure to newspapers that he worried over how many newspapers owned radio stations. World War II suspended further development of radio as a President’s domestic weapon. With peace came Truman, whose use of radio made some difference, but who lacked the force of Roosevelt.
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.