The First TV President

I liked Ike. Ike liked TV. Not FOX News.  But network news programs and musical shows.

Or so TV Guide magazine for Feb. 12, 1955 tells us. “The President is Watching, Too,” the headline says. “TV Wins Generous Share of ‘First Family’s’ Leisure,” says the subhead.

Leisure?  Executive Time?

He didn’t tweet.  He didn’t rant.  He held occasional press conferences. People mostly thought they were boring. He gave the first televised press conference, on Jan. 19, 1955.  It was filmed, not shown live.  Ike called it “an experiment.”

Mamie watched that historic press conference, TV Guide reported, as well as the first “historic televised Cabinet meeting,” on Oct. 25, 1954, held to discuss relations with Western Europe—something about strengthening NATO–not for unctuous genuflecting cabinet members.

He liked to play golf but owned no golf courses. He had a farm in Gettysburg, not a palace in West Palm.

Leafing through a collection of 24 weekly TV Guides from the 1950s, I landed on the Valentine’s Day issue with a cover featuring four stars from “Your Hit Parade” and, above the signature nameplate: “The Eisenhowers and Television.”

It was the Golden Age of Television.  In the White House at least, it was the Golden Age of Civility. The “media” hadn’t entered the lexicon. Nor had “gaggle” or “pool spray.”

For the sunny president, the only “enemies of the people,” if he were pressed, were communists – not the press, not Democrats — but even here moderation ruled until Joe McCarthy took it too far and Ike helped to take him down.

The TV Guide story shows how far we have come from that seemingly placid time when there were just three networks, no cable news channels, no social media, no @realDonaldTrump.

When silos were what you had on a farm to store grain.   Not to separate people.

Of course, there were clouds just over the horizon: Within a decade, civil rights workers were slain, cities were aflame, students were protesting, Americans—largely poor and often black–were fighting and dying in Vietnam—the first televised war.

Thousands marched in the streets. Charismatic leaders were cut down. The nation watched in horror and in living color as police clubbed protesters during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Not only the nation watched.  “The whole world is watching” they chanted.

But, back in 1955, there was peace and prosperity (and lynching and legal segregation, but those were largely ignored in the postwar era.). The Korean War (or conflict, if you prefer) had ended, and The Greatest Generation was doing just fine, buying homes and raising families. Father knew best.  Just leave it to Beaver.  Life was good.

And in the White House, there was the war hero, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, who seemed to personify the country’s peacetime mood. The TV Guide told us so.

For this popular, two-term president, there was no “fake news” polluting the airwaves.

“Wherever the Eisenhowers go, television soon follows,” we learn from the magazine—and not  24/7 coverage, not a media scrum, but screens, at the farm in Pannsylvania, and at Camp David n Maryland.

The First Family was also America’s “First Televiewing Family.” There were six sets in family’s White House living quarters, two in the president’s “private study,” which “also has a color set.”

Ike and Mamie “frequently eat their dinners from trays while watching TV.”  Do Donald and Melania even dine together, much less watch the same screen? Somehow, these domestic details of the current First Family go unreported.  Why?

“The White House is careful never to disclose the names of the President’s favorite programs or stars. Personal friends say that Fred Waring and Arthur Godfrey are high on the list.”  The White House today makes no effort to hide the president’s preferred TV fare or personalities. FOX News, Sean Hannity, Judge Jeanine Pirro, Tucker Carlson.

For Ike, the new medium was for entertainment, period:

“From the evidence,” TV Guide deduced, “it would seem that if the President of the United States and his lady had to choose a single source of entertainment, the choice might very well be television.”

He hoped, he said at that first televised press conference, that “it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.”

If only.


  1. Dave Wachsman on July 12, 2019 at 7:24 am

    Hi Wheels. Life was swell in the 50’s. Keep on writing. Best regards, cousin Dave

    • Chuck Kaufman on July 12, 2019 at 9:29 am

      Today’s media seem only to be interested in search and destroy missions. This mirrors what is going on the world. Everything else is left to reality TV or game shows. It’s a rare outlet that cares about the anecdotal details of someone they hate, unless it will prove embarrassing. The truth used to be everything to the media. What happened? / Chuck

  2. Dan Schlieben on July 12, 2019 at 9:37 am

    Different times, for sure . . . god, you’ve been busy recently

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