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Eisenhower held first televised news conference in 1955

Don't worry, Jim; if that question comes up I'll just confuse them.

— President Dwight D. Eisenhower's response to presidential press secretary James C. Hagerty regarding the use of atomic weapons against China during the Formosa Strait crisis in 1955

An Associated Press article with a Washington dateline from Jan. 18, 1955, announced that the White House had authorized television and newsreel cameramen to "make sound movies of Presidential news conferences for possible public showings."

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's press secretary said the new policy would go into effect Jan. 19, 1955, with the president's weekly news conference.

Press secretary James C. Hagerty explained to AP that the "new policy did not extend to 'live' telecasts." An Army Signal Corps detail had been making sound recordings of presidential news conferences for several years. Beginning in 1954, the White House instituted a policy whereby sections of the recordings were released for later use by radio and TV but without film.

As the clock crept toward 10:30 a.m. Jan. 19, Eisenhower, wearing a brown suit, brown patterned tie and a white shirt with a slight suggestion of blue, was quickly making his way to the old State Department building at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street.

His destination was the Edwardian-era treaty room that had been transformed into a TV studio with six large lights.

Leroy Anderson, an NBC cameraman, had been selected in a draw to film the event along with a crew from Fox Movietone News for the newsreels. The two camera crews stared down from scaffolding that had been erected in the elegant room.

Eisenhower was two minutes late when he stepped into the room at 10:32 a.m. There waiting for him were 216 reporters, with some consigned to a balcony where they could see the president but would have difficulty getting recognized to ask a question.

"It was a most improbable scene carried off in a most casual way," wrote a reporter for The New York Times. "The camera lights danced on the marble and gilt of another era, rested always on the President, standing ruddy and matter of fact at the head of the room, and now and then on the men and women gathered there to question him."

Standing before two microphones, Eisenhower began the news conference by asking the roomful of reporters to be seated.

"Well, I see we are trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn't prove to be a disturbing influence. I have no announcements. We will go directly to questions," he said.

He took the first question from Robert E. Clark of the International News Service, who asked about the "seriousness of the latest Communist attacks on Nationalist islands in the China Sea, in light of our commitment to defend Formosa," as the cameras ground away.

Eisenhower concluded his answer by stating, "Now, exactly what is going to be the development there, I cannot foresee, so I won't try to speculate on exactly what we should do in that area."

The second question went to Chalmers M. Roberts of The Washington Post and Times Herald, and so it went for the next 33 minutes.

At 11:05 a.m., Merriman "Smitty" Smith, White House correspondent for United Press International, brought it to a conclusion, when — as he had done at every news conference beginning with the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt — he rose and said, "Thank you, Mr. President."

One of the cameramen boasted that he had shot 1,173 feet of film during the news conference.

Millions of American TV viewers tuned in that evening to watch 28 minutes and 25 seconds of footage from the history-making broadcast that had been released by the White House.

The New York Times observed the next day that the "privilege of filming the President's press conference — with the understanding that the footage would be subject to White House review before being shown — represented a significant victory for TV as a journalistic medium."

The newspaper also said that the event had given "new insight into President Eisenhower as a personality on the TV screen."

The New York Times also pointed out that Eisenhower was not a TV novice and had been the recipient of a "great deal of professional television advice in the use of cue cards, how to look at the camera, etc. He never has been too uncomfortable."

There were moments when a seemingly at-ease president flashed the famous Eisenhower smile for the assembled reporters.

An editorial in The Times said that it was obvious the president was working hard not to show any irritation with the gentlemen of the press.

"And irritation is occasionally justified when the questions asked are too prolonged, too expository or too obviously intended to embarrass," said the editorial.

Russell Baker, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, covered the Eisenhower administration for The New York Times and later wrote the nationally syndicated "Observer" column, retiring in 1998.

"I attended Ike's news conferences regularly," Baker recalled in a telephone interview from his Leesburg, Va., home the other day, but confessed he wasn't sure he was on hand that day in 1955.

"Ike was always afraid he'd say something, and he tried to be careful. He'd say something, and then in the next sentence he'd cancel it," said Baker with a laugh.

"He was an interesting guy, and when you left the press conference, you felt as though you had lots of good material, and when you got back to the office and opened your notebook, you had nothing. He was very canny in dealing with the press," he said.

"After the paraphrase rule was instituted, you didn't quote Eisenhower unless Jim Haggerty said you could. You just didn't put anything in quotes," he said.

Baker recalled that in news conferences, Eisenhower was very much in "command of the situation" and remained "extremely cautious."

Baker said The New York Times had seats close to where the president stood, which afforded him the opportunity to study the president's face and gestures up close.

"He was still a military guy who looked on the press as a bunch of sergeants and gave them that level of respect. He never cultivated the press or invited them in to play bridge," he said. "He knew few of their names except Merriman Smith's, which he always mispronounced."

Baker recalled Eisenhower stepping into a verbal minefield when a reporter asked whether he could provide an important idea of Vice President Richard M. Nixon's that had been adopted by the administration.

Without thinking, Eisenhower quickly replied, "If you give me a week, I might think of one."

In the summer of 1955, Baker earned a little journalistic immortality while he was in Denver covering Eisenhower, who was recovering from a heart attack.

Dr. Paul Dudley White, the noted Massachusetts General Hospital heart specialist who was treating the president, announced in a news conference that Eisenhower was making progress when he stated to reporters that the president had "a good bowel movement yesterday."

"I quoted Doctor White's report exactly in deference to the Time's policy of providing the fullest possible coverage, but buried it in the story's fifty-third paragraph in deference to the Time's distaste for offending the social conventions," Baker wrote in one of his memoirs, "The Good Times."

"Thus I became the first reporter in history to report a presidential bowel movement in The New York Times," he wrote.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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