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MTP at 70: Before the Senate, JFK Makes His Debut

John F. Kennedy made 8 appearances on Meet the Press, starting before his Senate run, and his last just before defeating Richard Nixon for the White House.

John F. Kennedy was at ease on television. Lawrence Spivak described him as “brief, clipped, and forceful,” while Meet the Press panelist May Craig pointed out that, “he was good to look at.” She said “He had a great deal of poise,” and in those pre-sound-bite days, he was “a man who always knew what he wanted to say."

May Craig put the first question to Kennedy when he made his Meet the Press debut on December 2, 1951—“Congressman, aren’t you worried about the revelation of Communism and corruption in the executive departments?” Communism, he replied, was no longer a threat, but action should be taken to “rid the government of men who take advantage of their office.”

Asked who would be the Democrats’ strongest candidate for the presidency in 1952, he named President Truman, “unless General Eisenhower ran as a Democrat and supported the Democratic program.” However, he added, “I don’t know whether General Eisenhower is a Republican or Democrat.”

John F. Kennedy makes his first appearance on Meet the Press, December 2, 1951.NBC NEWS

He declared an interest in challenging incumbent Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. in 1952: “I’m definitely interested in going to the Senate,” he told Lawrence Spivak. “I’m seriously considering running.”

He ran, he won, and he returned to Meet the Press on November 9, 1952, when Lawrence Spivak introduced him as “Senator-elect John F. Kennedy, whose sensational victory in Massachusetts in the face of General Eisenhower's landslide has brought him to national attention as the most important Democratic figure in New England.”

In a special taping in New York City, Kennedy appeared on the first color news program on NBC News, February 14th in 1954.

MEET THE PRESS -- "Senator John F. Kennedy" -- Aired 02/14/1954 -- Pictured: (l-r) Miss Clark, Senator John F. Kennedy -- Photo by: NBCU Photo BankNBCU Photo Bank

The Senator-elect displayed a command of international issues, warning about the risks of US support for France in French Indochina: “As most of the Asiatics regard the French as imperialists, we take the chance in financing a war which in the end we're going to eventually lose unless we can win the support of the natives of that area.” He also spoke of repealing the Taft-Hartley Act that restricted trade union activities, and raising wages in the South. On the presidential question, he said Adlai Stevenson might be the best man to lead the party into the 1956 presidential election.

Nine days before that election, in which Stevenson lost to Dwight D. Eisenhower for the second time, Kennedy faced the Meet the Press panel again. The campaign had raised Kennedy’s profile, and moderator Ned Brooks told viewers that “His race with Senator Kefauver for the vice-presidential nomination provided the most dramatic chapter of the Chicago convention. He lost by only a very few votes, but his strong showing convinced many party leaders of his future possibilities on the national scene.”

MEET THE PRESS -- "Senator John F. Kennedy" -- Aired 02/14/1954 -- Pictured: (l-r) uknown, Jacqueline Kennedy, Senator John F. Kennedy, Lawrence Spivak, unknowns -- Photo by: NBCU Photo BankNBCU Photo Bank

Looking at the Republican victors, Kennedy said: “When Mr. Eisenhower talks about the party of the future, he is talking about the party of Richard Nixon,” because “the only young man of leadership in the Republican Party is Nixon.”

Ned Brooks introduced Kennedy again on November 9, 1958, the week after he had been reelected to the Senate by the largest margin in Massachusetts history and the largest of any Senatorial candidate in the nation. “Both the Democrats and Republicans now agree,” Brooks said, “that his three-to-one victory has placed him more solidly in the front rank for the presidential race of 1960.”

Kennedy refused to declare his candidacy for president, but on the question of a Roman Catholic being elected president, he said: “The American people judge candidates on their qualities, their talent, character, and general ability, and they do not regard a man’s religion as either favorable or unfavorable.”

May Craig asked him, “Do you think voting on personality, or a person, is the best way to decide how to vote?

“I think that isn’t a bad way,” Kennedy replied.

He returned to Meet the Press on January 3, 1960, the day after he announced his entrance into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. He said that under no circumstances would he accept the nomination for vice president: “The vice-presidential candidate does not contribute. People vote for the presidential candidates on both sides. That is what is going to happen in 1960. They presume that the presidential candidate is going to have a normal life expectancy.” He had no interest, he said, in “waiting for the president to die.”

Kennedy won the presidential nomination at a contentious party conference in Los Angeles. The day before the conference opened, he was on a ninety-minute Meet the Press special with rival candidates Senator Stuart Symington and Senator Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy addressed several major foreign policy issues:

John F. Kennedy made his eighth and final appearance on Meet the Press on October 16, 1960. Twenty-three days later, he defeated Richard Nixon in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history.