By Sam Garfield

January 20, 1955

(Washington) –As I sat in the ornate balcony watching Ike, it suddenly hit me –he’s a natural, tailor-made for the job.

The idea to film President Eisenhower’s weekly press conferences for TV (and movie theaters) belongs to one of his top lieutenants, James Haggerty, White House press secretary. But it is the President himself, a man whose reach never exceeds his grip, who could take the idea and turn it into pure genius.

These days, after all, it’s not always what you say but how you look saying it.

There I was, squeezed in with more than 200 other journalists in the Indian Treaty Room of the Executive Office Building, just a chip shot from Ike’s Oval Office. This Neptune-inspired space once served as the reception hall in the Navy wing of the Edwardian-era State Department Building. The cast iron balcony railing features seahorses and dolphins; navigational stars adorn the high ceiling; and in the center of  the English Minton tile floor sits an elaborate compass, a fitting metaphor since the President is headed for uncharted waters. Not far from me a platform holds two 16-mm. “pool” cameras for TV and two 35-mm. newsreel cameras. Six large lights shine brightly on Ike’s brave new world.

“We want to let the people of our country not only read the reports of the press, but see and hear the discussion that the President has with you gentlemen,” was the way Haggerty told newsmen about his new experiment, which will continue at each press conference. After each session with the press, the White House will review the film and decide whether all or part of the President’s words will be released to the public later in the day. For print journalists, the entire press conference is open to reporting, but Ike can only be quoted indirectly on portions not released on film.

So…what’s the big deal about filming a Presidential press conference?

For the American people: You get a chance to see your President on a weekly basis answering questions from the press. The President of the United States on your TV, in your living room, every week. No reporter telling you how the President looks. If Ike looks unsure of himself, you can judge for yourself without waiting for your morning paper. If Ike looks happy; if he looks angry; if he looks bored, it’s now for you to judge. There’s no filtering, except for Haggerty’s editing. You can also grade the journalists: Do we ask the right questions?

For Ike: Make no mistake, President Eisenhower –the leader of the free world– is also a politician. And next year is an election year. The smack of genius in Haggerty’s idea is this –if Ike stays cool, looks straight into the camera, and is confident answering a half-hour of questions, he’ll gain tremendous public support. This is a man who is always in control of the situation. The camera, I believe, will treat him well. It will highlight his warm, grandfatherly smile; a sincere one, I might add. Take for example the way he opened yesterday’s first filmed session: “Well, I see we’re trying a new experiment this morning, hope it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.”  He stood before us, erect, polished and seemingly unaware of the bright lights and cameras. He addressed the crowded room of reporters in that coy way of his, always in command, like we were his officers. Some people may think the press conferences will be tricky mine fields for Ike. But he’s more than a leader; he’s a crafty politician. And he’s very canny with journalists, answering all the questions, but many times saying very little. Very little to get him in trouble.

For TV: Here’s the big winner. Now the playing field is level with newspapers when it comes to Presidential news conferences. Because TV uses the airwaves, governed by the Federal Communications Commission, television news is supposed to be steeped in public service, and getting a press conference on TV is certainly in the public service. Next step, of course, will be “live” press conferences.

For Print Journalists: We also enter a brave new world. For the first time, our readers will be able to watch the President on TV before they read our newspapers. This means our reporting of the President –and our writing– must now stand up to the man himself. We must be as crisp as he is, as confident. And as any officer knows, that will be a tough task.

That compass on the floor in the Indian Treaty Room, I wonder in whose direction it’s pointed?

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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