ON FEBRUARY 14, 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited the nation on a televised tour of the White House—and we never left, individually absorbing the reality and collectively, through decades of TV dramas, imagining even more.
It was actually President Harry S. Truman who gave the first televised tour in 1952, but to a small and largely local audience of the early owners of television sets. Within the next decade, television ownership had surged to such an extent that 80 million viewers ultimately tuned into Mrs. Kennedy’s tour.
As the articles in our White House and Television issue of White House History Quarterly reveal, for more than sixty years, the televised White House has brought us information, education, and entertainment while shaping our perceptions of the presidency.
Noting that television has “contributed to the rise of a new breed of American leader—a charismatic, telegenic individual who understood that a public figure’s image on TV could be vital to his or her success or failure,” author Kenneth T. Walsh opens the issue with a history of the televised depiction of the presidents.
With her article “Television Comes to the White House to Stay,” Rebecca Durgin Kerr chronicles the presidential embrace of television as both a tool to communicate with the nation and a ready source of up-to-the-minute news. From President Harry S. Truman’s first televised speech from the White House in 1947 to President Joe Biden’s recent video conferencing, Kerr explains how the White House has kept pace with the evolution of television and technology, as well as their potential.
Author Marc Freeman takes us behind the scenes to the making of the critically acclaimed series The West Wing, which aired from 1999 to 2006. He credits the series with reinventing political theater and shares a recent conversation with seven of the show’s creators who explain how they did it.
It was only natural for America’s first ladies and television’s Muppets to become fast friends given their shared interests in early childhood education. Beginning with Big Bird’s first of many visits to the East Room in 1970, Diana Bartelli Carlin takes us through more than fifty years of televised collaborations on the set of Sesame Street and in the White House itself.
With her analysis of the importance of realism in making a fictional White House scenario credible, Colleen Shogan shares how the political drama Designated Survivor, although based on a fictional event, was carefully scripted to reflect actual constitutional procedure. This focus on authenticity, which extended to the design of the Oval Office and the artwork in the White House Collection, was thus a key to the success of the series.
In her article on Mrs. Kennedy’s 1962 televised tour of the White House, Mary Jo Binker explains that “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy became a landmark in White House history. . . . The first lady simultaneously demystified the White House and elevated its importance. The rooms and the objects they contained became both more familiar and more important. . . . The White House became more than just the home of the president. It became a home for the nation.”
With “Upstairs at the White House with Tricia Nixon,” a segment of 60 Minutes that aired in 1970, First Daughter Tricia Nixon picked up where Mrs. Kennedy left off, taking viewers into the seldom seen Private Quarters. Author Leslie Calderon uses the White House Historical Association’s Digital Library to tell us more about how the show was made.
Joel Kemelhor takes us to the set of It’s Academic, television’s longest running quiz show. A question writer and producer for the show, Kemelhor shares how the White House and the presidency have been featured in the questions posed to competing high school students and what those questions, and the students’ ability to answer them, reflect about the evolving knowledge of the presidency and the White House.
For our Presidential Sites Feature, “More Than a Photo-Op: Presidential Pilgrimages to Disney Parks,” Bethanee Bemis chronicles the presidential visits to the Disney parks from the 1950s to the present day and she explains that the theme parks have provided a positive forum for presidents aiming to connect with the public.
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