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JFK’s Press Conference Homework

20 Nov 62 press conference

JFK answers questions from reporters at the November 20, 1962, news conference.
Photo by Abbie Rowe | National Archives.

Some presidents look like they’re being tortured during press conferences. JFK had a knack for making it look effortless. He had practice. Between January 25, 1961, and November 14, 1963, he held 64 official press conferences.

But the ease Kennedy displayed at those events wasn’t all the product of natural charm and wit. Before each news conference, the White House press office prepared a thick binder for the president running through dozens of potential questions (and variations of those questions) and suggesting possible answers. The briefing books were thick–the scanned documents below presents approximately half of the briefing book for this particular press conference.

In the briefing book below prepared for the November 20, 1962, press conference, the range of questions was broad. Cuba dominated, but there were many topics the president might face questions on, ranging from key economic figures, the business outlook, one-stage vs two-stage tax reform, a military pay study, POLARIS in the Pacific, discussions with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the situation in Laos, Yemen, and the planned visit of Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg. In general, the briefing papers provided the topic or variations on the questions along with suggested answers or background material. Sometimes that background material included classified information (for an example, see the page below referring to the short-range Luna/FROG missiles in Cuba).

In a 1966 interview on William F. Buckley Jr’s Firing Line, White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger used the preparation of this “homework” to justify the White House press office’s occasional practice of planting questions with reporters in presidential press conferences.

I think in order to understand the need for planting questions–and every press secretary I know of has planted questions–it goes back really to the difference in preparation for press conferences. The President of the United States, who must answer the questions and therefore be prepared to talk about any subject that comes up, must be prepared for a press conference. The press, on the other hand, I found in many cases, was unprepared for the press conference, did not do their homework to the extent that the President did his homework. And time after time in the early months of the Kennedy administration, the President would go to the press conference prepared to answer very key questions that would give very important information to the American people only to leave the press conference without anybody having ever bothered to ask him the question.

So why not just include that information in an opening statement, which was completely under the President’s control? Salinger continued:

But the fact of the matter is there are some kinds of information which is better for the President to respond to than to put in the opening statement. The opening statement has a kind of finality to it that answering questions does not. And I could think of a number of instances where the questions were not asked. And so I would say probably five or six instances during the time that I was Press Secretary we did ask reporters to ask questions. I don’t know whether they were friendly or unfriendly reporters, but we wanted to make sure the question got asked.{{1}}

Several days before each press conference, Salinger and his team would start writing out on a yellow legal pad a list of topics and questions that they anticipated might come up. These lists formed the basis for preparing the briefing books. Salinger late said that he thought he and his team successfully anticipated about 80 percent of the questions that were asked.

 

In assembling the briefing books, the White House press office staff would solicit input from the relevant agencies and department. Often the responses would be included as received; sometimes White House staff would edit them.

 

There are a number of notable items in the briefing book concerning Cuba. One briefing item, for example, concerned a question that did not come up. The front page of that morning’s Herald-Tribune was given to a story by Marguerite Higgins about short-range nuclear missiles that were still in Cuba. Known as Luna or FROGs, they had been discovered late in the crisis through low-level surveillance flights. (Note: This is a topic I cover extensively in The Fourteenth Day.) The briefing item prepared by the Department of Defense included some classified background information that is revealing about the lingering uncertainty about whether the Luna/FROGs were armed with nuclear warheads or not.

On the basis of available information, the Russian troops in Cuba are equipped with FROG rockets (nuclear-capable rockets of the Honest John type).

Of the four known Soviet FROG (Free Rocket over Ground) systems, two have both a nuclear and high explosive capability, a third has only a nuclear capability and the fourth is possibly designed solely for use with high explosives, but could use one of the nuclear warheads.

We do not know which system or systems was included in the Soviet arms delivered to Cuba.

Whether their warheads are nuclear or non-nuclear, the FROG weapons in Cuba do provide a long-range artillery support capability.

[[1]]Pierre Salinger, “The President and the Press,” Firing Line with William F. Buckley, September 12, 1966, (New York: WOR-TV).[[1]]

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