Magazine article Variety

TV Went All the Way with JFK

Magazine article Variety

TV Went All the Way with JFK

Article excerpt

Young medium grew up alongside the great vigor of a youthful president

Despite the numbing volume of coverage devoted to the Kennedy assassination this month, the programming has touched only tangentially on what might be the 35th president's most enduring legacy: defining the budding relationship between politics and the nascent medium of television.

In presidential terms, much of John Kennedy's contribution was indecisive, or at best unfinished. Yes, he stared down the Soviets, but it fell to Lyndon Johnson to enact the Great Society programs, and debate lingers over whether the young president would have escalated the war in Vietnam had he survived.

As one historian says in "JFK," a four-hour PBS documentary, "We will never know whether he would have been a great president.... We didn't have that chance."

What Kennedy set in motion regarding television, however, has since snowballed. Even the differences between the age in which he served and the modern landscape are illuminating.

For starters, it's easy to forget how quickly TV went from novelty to living room fixture. When the 1950s began, only 9% of U.S. homes had a TV set, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. By the time Kennedy was sworn in, that percentage had increased nearly tenfold.

Handsome and telegenic, Kennedy was perceived as having won the first-ever televised presidential debates by those who watched them, but not by people who listened on radio. In "JFK," presidential biographer Robert Dallek notes that Richard Nixon's uncomfortable appearance was said to resemble a "sinister chipmunk."

Yet Kennedy's mastery of TV and intuitive grasp of imagery went well beyond that, planting the seeds for the showbiz values that have come to permeate politics in the 50 years since his death.

As several of the current spate of specials note, Kennedy held the first televised news conferences, during which he playfully jousted with the press - and disarmed more pointed questions by delivering witty one-liners.

The president also embraced using his family - model-pretty wife Jackie and those adorable young children - as photogenic props. The first family graced magazine covers, and was shown engaging with Edward R. Murrow on "Person to Person" in what today would be the domain of a latenight chatshow. …

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