Topic: President Kennedy’s Press Conferences
Grade Level: 9-12
Subject Area: US History after World War II
Time Required: 2 class sessions
President Kennedy was the first US president to hold live televised press conferences. During his years in office, on average, he held one every sixteen days.
In this lesson, students act as members of President Kennedy’s Press Office with an assignment to prepare a briefing for the president on topics that may come up in a specific press conference. To fulfill this assignment, students explore the Kennedy Library website, using both primary and secondary sources. As a culminating activity, students participate in a simulated press conference.
Essential Question: How might a president address the public about important issues?
- discuss major events that occurred during President Kennedy’s administration.
- discuss the role of the presidential press secretary and press conferences.
- analyze primary source documents and web-based materials.
- create press briefing materials for selected press conference dates.
- evaluate and write appropriate press conference questions and answers.
- present orally their questions and answers for the press conference.
Connections to Curriculum (Standards):
National History Standards
US History: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s), Era 9: 2A, 2B, 2C, 3B, 4A.
World History: The 20th Century Since 1945: Promises and Paradoxes, Era 9: 1B.
Historical Thinking: 1A, 1B, 1C, 2A, 2B, 2F, 4A, 4B, 5A, 5B, 5C, 5D, 5E.
MA Frameworks Connections
USII.19(B); USII.25; USII28; WHII.32 (E); WHII.38(A).
Prior Knowledge and Skills
Students should have a working knowledge of US history prior to 1961. They should be able to use the Internet for research and analyze primary sources.
Historical Background and Context
Presidential press relations date back to George Washington who expressed dismay that his farewell address might not receive adequate press coverage due to its length. Theodore Roosevelt institutionalized the White House press corps by creating a press room and issuing credentials. The policy of regular weekly press conferences began with Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft. All presidents from Taft to Herbert Hoover met with the press regularly, answering written questions. Attribution was restricted and direct quotation was never permitted. The revolution in communications brought about by electronic media changed this forever. Starting with Harry S. Truman, press conferences were electronically recorded. The president was, therefore, speaking “on the record.” The electronic record made charges of misquotation easy to resolve. The emergence of television fundamentally changed presidential relations with the press, and led to the creation of a central office in the Eisenhower administration. The press secretary became a reliable and regular source of all official communication.
The press secretary's central role continued in the Kennedy administration. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, handled the flow of news from the entire executive branch of government as well as from Kennedy’s office. One of Salinger’s responsibilities was to prepare the President for his televised press conferences.
The day before each press conference, Kennedy's Press office would agree on the 20-30 questions they believed would be asked by correspondents. Pierre Salinger noted in his memoirs that the public information officers were excellent at anticipating questions. For questions "in sensitive areas," the staff would provide a background briefing and a suggested response.
Salinger would supply the president with briefing papers the evening before the press conference. The next morning, at breakfast, the president would meet with Salinger and other White House staff members or cabinet officers to practice. Kennedy usually would require more facts for 6-8 questions and, after the morning meeting, Salinger would work on researching the requested information. An hour before the 4:00 PM press conference, Salinger would go over the new information with Kennedy.
- The Presidential Press Office web page
- President Kennedy's Press Conferences
- "Launching into the Sixties" (included in downloadable pdf)
- Press Program Worksheet (included in lesson plan pdf)
- August 10, 1961 press conference briefing paper (included in lesson plan pdf)
- Distribute the "Launching into the Sixties" article. Ask students to read the handout and answer the questions. This will provide them with some background information about the time period. (This can be assigned for homework.)
- Ask students to read the web page The Presidential Press Office. (This can be assigned for homework.) Discuss the extensive preparation by Kennedy and his staff for each press conference. Why might Kennedy have chosen to participate in so many press conferences during his tenure in office? Why might Kennedy have spent so much time preparing for these press conferences? Do they believe a President should have frequent press conferences? Why or why not?
- Distribute the Press Program Worksheet. Divide students into groups of 2-5 and give each group a press conference date. Have students complete the worksheet, either in groups or individually. Remind them that they need to use at least one primary source available on the website as part of their background information. They should not use Kennedy's press conferences as a primary source. Suggest that they use the search function on the JFK Library website to find relevant information.
- Ask each group of students to put their selected question on one blank sheet of paper and the answer to the question on another blank sheet of paper.
- Have students choose someone in their group to be President Kennedy and another person to be a reporter.
- Have students give their page with the question to the reporter in another group.
- Begin a simulated press conference with each reporter asking each President Kennedy a question.
- After each President Kennedy answers a question, the groups will discuss the information provided by the president and each group will create a potential newspaper headline based on the presentation. It can be a headline found in a more "serious" daily newspaper, or a tabloid type headline. A spokesperson in each group will share their headline with the entire class.
- Award a point to the group that you determine has the most creative headline. Tally up the points at the end and identify a winner.
- Have students research any additional information that they did not find on the Kennedy Library website that would have been useful to their work and add it to their briefing.
- Have students read the transcripts from President Kennedy’s press conference for their assigned date. Assign them to write a report on the actual questions asked at the press conference and whether or not one of their questions and/or answers matched those of President Kennedy. Was there a particular focus of the questions asked by reporters? Were students surprised by the issues raised or questions asked? If the issue the students raised in their simulated press conference matched one in the actual press conference, how closely did Kennedy’s answer match their own? How might they have strengthened their answers?
- Have students use their completed worksheets to create a formal press briefing document that includes (a) a potential question Kennedy may be asked on their press conference date, (b) a “current situation report,” and (c) “suggested points for the president’s reply.” They should follow the form of the August 10, 1961 press conference briefing paper.
- Have students research any additional information that they did not find on the Kennedy Library website that would have been useful to their briefing.
- Have students read the transcripts from President Kennedy’s press conference. Assign them to write a report on the actual questions asked at the press conference and whether or not one of their questions and/or answers matched those of President Kennedy. Was there a particular focus of the questions asked by reporters? Were students surprised by the issues raised or questions asked? If the issue the students raised in their simulated press conference matched one in actual the press conference, how closely did Kennedy’s answer match their own? How might they have strengthened their answers?