Early and Groundbreaking Look at 'Four Presidents'

HOLLYWOOD " At the New York World's Fair on April 30, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first commander in chief to appear on television when he formally opened the festivities on a NBC telecast. Since that time, every president and presidential candidate has used the medium " to various degrees of success, most famously in the John F. Kennedy-Richard Nixon debates of 1960, when Kennedy's self-assured demeanor helped him win the election over his Republican opponent, who was ill at ease and perspiring profusely in front of the cameras.

As the conventions approach this summer to anoint the presidential campaigns of GOP veteran Sen. John McCain and Democratic newbie Sen. Barack Obama, the UCLA Film and Television Archive is offering a free program Friday, "Four Presidents on Television," at the Billy Wilder Theater. Dan Einstein, a television archivist at the University of California, Los Angeles, will host the event, which features TV appearances by Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Nixon and Kennedy.

Telecast Nov. 18, 1959, Truman's appearance on "The Jack Benny Program" finds the legendary comedian traveling to Independence, Mo., to visit the former president and the Truman Library. "Evidentially, Truman and Benny, if not friends, had known each other since the 1940s," Einstein says. "In the summer of 1959, he invited Truman to be on the show. I guess he proposed to Truman that they tape something at the Truman Library, which had just opened."

So in September, Benny, his manager and writers ventured to Missouri and enlisted the CBS affiliate in Kansas City to provide the production facilities.

The quality of the videotape footage from the library is far inferior to what was shot later with Benny on his soundstage in Hollywood. "Remote recording was really difficult, with big, huge cameras and machines," Einstein says. "When they came back, they discovered they had used the wrong microphones, and the sound and picture quality were terrible. Benny didn't want to run the thing, but they had to because there was so much publicity."

Despite its problems, the show was well-received by critics and audiences. And although Truman awkwardly reads cue cards in a comedic bit in his office with Benny, the former president is folksy and funny while leading the comedian around the library. "There is a real kind of warmth there," Einstein says.

No such warmth exists on "NBC News Special Report: Nixon-Khrushchev Debate," which aired July 25, 1959, when Nixon was vice president and Nikita S. Khrushchev was the premier of the Soviet Union. The impromptu "debate" was taped in color in Moscow at the opening of the American National Exhibition on July 24 while they were standing in front of an exhibit of American color TV equipment.

Khrushchev, says Einstein, "was so much more relaxed." Nixon wasn't. "You can see a real difference in style between the two," he says.

The encounter was sent back to the U.S., where it was telecast on all three networks the next day.

Eisenhower is featured in "Dedication Day: NBC Washington Studios Dedication Ceremony," which aired May 22, 1958. The telecast is preserved from the oldest known surviving color videotapes and revolves around the dedication of WRC-TV, NBC's studio in the national's capital, which was designed and built for broadcasting in color. For dramatic effect, NBC executive Robert Sarnoff, in the middle of his welcoming speech, pushes a button that transforms the black-and-white telecast into color.

It's more entertaining than Eisenhower, who seemed to be having a hard time reading from a TelePrompTer. "When he gets up to deliver his little speech, it's obvious he didn't prepare for it," Einstein says.

The final broadcast is "John F. Kennedy Speaks to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association," which aired Sept. 12, 1960, throughout Texas as a paid political announcement. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic, and his speech was meant to quell fears among Protestants about his candidacy.

In the 30-minute program, Kennedy speaks to the ministers about his faith and then answers questions. The future president was, as usual, unflappable and persuasive.


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