A Media Moment
The Kennedy assassination was also a dramatic turning point for journalism. For the first time in the history of the country, the entire nation focused on one story and watched it unfold live on television.
Up until that weekend, the majority of Americans got their news from print. From that weekend on, television became the place where most Americans got their news.
This was an era of gatekeeper journalists. You had Walter Cronkite. You had Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. You had the editors of the New York Times and other powerful mainstream newspapers. In a sense, we were all getting information and basing our opinions on the same stuff.
Now our news comes from a variety of places. We're into this era of what I call validation journalism, where people watch a certain channel or listen to a certain show because they are looking not necessarily for facts but for a news product that validates what they already believe. You can get your news from a liberal point of view, or you can get it from a conservative point of view. The real problem is: Is it true? Can it be trusted? You have to be very discerning.
Why Kennedy Matters
I've always had a theory that the most successful politicians are the ones who master the dominant communication medium of their time. The founders were all great writers, because in those days most people got their news about government from the written word. Roosevelt was the first to grasp radio: He knew that he was talking to six or eight people sitting in their living room, not shouting at 40,000 people in Yankee Stadium.
Kennedy was the first one to truly take advantage of the power of television. And he was better at it than anyone has been since. Reagan was quite good, but nobody was as good as Kennedy. He understood that it was not always what the president said; sometimes it was the way he said it. People loved his banter with reporters. They even loved the way he could charm his way past answering the questions he didn't want to answer.
Kennedy didn't have many legislative accomplishments. The great battles were won later, by Lyndon Johnson and the work he did on civil rights. Had it not been for Vietnam, where he made an enormous mistake, I believe Johnson would rank as one of the top four presidents. But Kennedy turned a page of American history as we went from the 1950s to the '60s. Eisenhower was a good president, but he was of a previous generation. It was a more traditional kind of leadership.
And then along came this young, vigorous, glamorous man, with a beautiful wife. It was like The Wizard of Oz. Remember how the movie started out in black-and-white, and then Dorothy opens her front door into this vibrant Technicolor? That's how I think of the Kennedy administration. He brought style and grace, and inspired a generation to do something for their country. That is the great contribution that Kennedy made.