During John F. Kennedy’s inaugural Meet the Press appearance on December 2, 1951, the MTP set saw a rare event: a panelist smoking during the program. Legendary New York Times journalist James Reston, the paper’s longtime Washington Bureau Chief, smoked throughout much of the interview, including while questioning Kennedy. Host Lawrence Spivak’s hatred of tobacco was well-known at Meet the Press, where there were no-smoking signs and artwork warning of its dangers throughout the office. Spivak was usually unshakeable in his ban of smoking during the program, including during commercial breaks. Even his famous guests did not escape: Randolph Churchill, son of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, once called Spivak a “goddamned dictator” for not letting him smoke. And when Edward R. Murrow was denied his usual supply of cigarettes during a 1961 appearance, he was visibly unhappy on camera and crew members reported seeing his legs twitching under the table from nicotine withdrawal.
Reston’s transgression during the 1951 show began as Spivak questioned Kennedy on his recent trip to Asia and the Middle East. Kennedy, then a young congressman from Massachusetts with plans of running for Senate, had returned with strong views about American foreign policy. He said on Meet the Press that “it is generally agreed that the U.S. has few friends” – which he said was partly due to America’s status as a rich and powerful country, but also to the conduct of its foreign service. Kennedy denied any charges of Communism in the State Department, but said instead the problem was the type of personnel accepted into service: “they’re not getting young men who are well-rounded, who are balanced, and who are what we like to think of as representative Americans.” As Spivak began the exchange, Reston, who was sitting next to him, reached into his pocket for his pack of cigarettes. The camera hastily focused on Spivak, but as the MTP host continued to talk, cigarette smoke started to drift over towards him. A visibly annoyed Spivak leaned farther away from Reston for the remainder of the interview. While Reston then questioned Kennedy on his striking criticism of the State Department, he gestured with his lit cigarette, with no apparent awareness of how much it was upsetting his panel neighbor. You can watch a clip of the smoking drama unfold below, as well as more from John F. Kennedy’s first appearance on Meet the Press.
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