Issue #15 - Presidential Newsletter

January 25, 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the very first live-televised Presidential news conference. In today’s media landscape it’s easy to forget how important radio and television broadcasting were in the mid-20th century. At the time, the savvy politicians understood this and engaged with TV proactively. Those who didn’t, suffered the electoral consequences.

 In 1962, halfway through his first term as President, John F. Kennedy appeared on television (as he often did) for an interview. When asked about the role of the media in American politics, he said, “Even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”

Politicians have never loved journalists, as a rule, but in this country politicians of integrity have always recognized the role the media plays in educating the public and calling public officials to account for their behavior. Thanks to the First Amendment, the American media practices a freedom of expression that’s become a model for other democracies. It’s odd, then, that it took so long for a President to harness the power of TV. Kennedy was the first. 

He wasn’t the first president to appear on television. That was President Harry S. Truman, on September 4, 1951, who delivered live remarks to the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco, California. But for the rest of the decade, TV lagged behind other news sources, particularly newspapers, in terms of news coverage. 

John F. Kennedy was relatively young (only 43 years old when he was assassinated) and seemed more comfortable with TV than many of his political peers. Kennedy believed this to be an advantage. Citing fellow Democratic Senators James Edmondson, Philip Hart, Republican Nelson Rockefeller, and others, Kennedy argued that “their youth may still be a handicap in the eyes of the older politicians-but it is definitely an asset in creating a television image people like and (most difficult of all) remember.”

A large part of Kennedy’s appeal as a politician was the presence of his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. A smart, beautiful woman who was fluent in several languages, well-educated, and who understood public relations, Jackie had her own fans. Her appearances were guaranteed to draw an audience, and President Kennedy understood and appreciated it. In 1962 Jackie got her own TV special when  “A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy” aired on the three major television networks to a rapt audience of 80 million people. The documentary was so successful, it inspired more programming aimed directly at women viewers, such as Princess Grace, who appeared in a similar documentary, “A Look at Monaco,” the following year. The support American women gave Jackie Kennedy would continue after her husband’s death. 

President Kennedy argued that TV could promote democtric ideals; television could make the opaque politics of Washington, D.C. more transparent. He noted that 70 million people watched the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 and he speculated about how TV might have impacted past events in American history, had it been available. “Newspaper accounts [of the 1868 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson] were decidedly partisan,” Kennedy wrote. ”Those who wished to see and judge for themselves flocked to Washington by carriage and train, but even if every seat in the Senate galleries had been occupied by a different person every day for the two months of trial, no more than 3000 people could have witnessed that historic event.” By making important political events visible on TV, Kennedy believed, the American public got a glimpse of “new ideas, new attitudes, new heroes and new villains.”

Kennedy put this into practice just a few months after Jackie’s White House tour. In October 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in what remains one of the nation’s most dangerous moments: the Cuban Missile Crisis. During an extremely tense month of negotiations with the U.S.S.R., President Kennedy called on Franklin J. Schaffner, director of “A Tour of the White House,” to help him prepare for the most high-profile TV appearance of his presidency, addressing the American people to explain his plan. Kennedy wanted to be as persuasive as possible, and he knew that the insight and professionalism of a feature film director (Schaffner had already directed “A Summer Place” (1961) and would go on to direct “Patton” (1970) and “Planet of the Apes” (1968), among other films) could have a real impact on the support he received from the American public. 

John F. Kennedy has remained one of the most popular U.S. Presidents long after his death and perhaps some of this is explained by the amount of televised footage of him and his family, while little to none exists of most of the Presidents who preceded him. Though not first to the medium, Kennedy set a standard that few politicians have ever matched in terms of presenting a vision of an appealing, capable leader.

“Honesty, vigor, compassion, intelligence”-- these made up a candidate’s public image, Kennedy argued. “My own conviction is that these images or impressions are likely to be uncannily correct.” This argument came more easily to the youthful, handsome JFK than to his less visually appealing opponents, but whether a good or bad thing, American voters soon came to expect to see their candidates on television in order to get to know them better. 

Today, politicians have a variety of mass media platforms, from TV to the Internet to old fashioned newspapers, available to them 24 hours a day. Political candidates hardly exist outside their media portrayal, and public figures have learned to use the media for self-promotion and the defamation of their rivals. But ever since JFK’s tenure, the live Presidential press conference has served as a valuable forum for Presidential accountability. Live press conferences are one of the few times Americans get to see their leader answer unanticipated questions and give spontaneous answers. Recognizing their importance, Congress created C-SPAN in 1979, to offer the public free access to Presidential press conferences as well as Congressional sessions. 

At that very first televised Presidential press conference in 1961, Kennedy addressed a number of issues, several focused on what would be the defining issue of his presidency, U.S.-Soviet relations. Kennedy discussed the state of the U.S.’ relationship with Cuba and then made the announcement that two American airmen shot down in July 1960 while flying near the Soviet Arctic were at that very moment headed home safely to their families. Journalists responded with a whistle of surprise; it was a moment made for live television. Kennedy was asked whether the U.S. negotiated anything in return for the airmen, but Kennedy said no. Many interpreted the act as a gesture of goodwill from Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev. 

Kennedy also remarked on the press conference itself. When one reporter asked why the event was being televised, Kennedy responded in his usual tone of cool confidence:  “Well, because the issue of war and peace is involved,” he said, “and the survival of perhaps the planet, possibly our system.”

Weekly Discoveries

  1. Genetic genealogy launched two decades ago and now over 40 million people have tested with the four major DNA testing companies. 

  2. The Internal Greek Ancestry Conference begins January 29th and you may attend virtually, for free.

  3. Our ancestors began the process of domesticating dogs during the Ice Age by feeding them leftover meat, according to a recent study.

  4. Learn more about researching your Belarussian ancestors with an introduction to Belarussian Research and Finding Your Family History with Land and Mortgage Records, part of a 12-lecture series focused on Polish records.

  5. From Land Records to Google Earth: Mapping Your Family's Place, learn more about your ancestors through legal land descriptions and Google Earth.

Tracing your Russian Roots

It is widely known that Russia, has had a storied history, and was an independent country that, for a time, was one of the republics encompassed by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, commonly referred to as the Sovient Union. 

What you may not know is that the first Russians to come to America were not immigrants to the United States, instead they were explorers traveling from Siberia, discovering Alaska and laying claim to it on behalf of their czar in the 18th century. The first Russian settlement was established in 1784 in the Aleutian island of Kodiak. Fur hunters and traders founded trading posts throughout the territory, leading Russia’s possession to stretch as far down the Pacific coast to what would later become Sonoma County, at Fortress Ross. Though Russia’s claim on the territory would end when it was sold to the United States in 1867, the Russian culture and religion would continue for generations.

In the late-19th century, inhabitants of the countries comprising the Russian Empire, such as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland, were struggling to survive, with poverty and starvation running rampant, spurring an influx of peasants and farmers to the United States. Initially this applied only to those not native to Russia itself, such as Ukranians, Poles, Lithuanians, Bellarussians, and the like. Their mass exodus flooded Ellis Island with hundreds of thousands looking for better lives for themselves and their families.This was not true for Russians, who were much more restricted by their government and were not allowed to leave the country. Fighting perilous situations, few brave Russian soles made their way to America during this period, amounting to only 65,000 enumerated in the 1910 Federal Census, while residing in the small communities they had established here.

Jacob Roomel family, Russian immigrants - photo taken near Ft. Collins, Colorado, 30 October 1915 (11 years after their arrival in the United States).  The family had a home in Ft. Collins, but had moved out this shack to contract-farm nearly 40 acres of beets, with even the 9 and 10 year old girls working the fields, due to an “economic need.”

Following the overthrow of the Russian government in 1917 and the ensuing civil war, many fled their mother country, with about 30,000 immigrating to the United States, many of whom had been affluent professionals and prominent citizens struggling to begin their new lives in America.  Soon the welcoming arms of American turned ugly, as the government and society began to fear those from communists countries, including the Russisans.  This fear of a communist revolution in the United States was at its height in 1918 - 1920 and was termed the Red Scare, leading to more than 5,000 being arrested in New York City alone and thousands being deported - most to the Soviet Union. Russian Americans began keeping a low profile.   

The years leading up to  World War II brought another influx of Russian immigrants to U.S. soil and this continued following the war, when in excess of 20,000 Russian war refugees, known as displaced persons, came to America.  Tensions continued to rise between the two countries, until the 1970s.

The movement of the Russian people did give reason for many documents to be created.  Though many of these records have been lost to war and border changes, many are extant and available to researchers, such as the Lutheran Church Books for 1833-1885, which include births, marriages and deaths for large portions of the Russian Empire and Passenger Lists of Displaced Persons detailing post-World War II immigrants.

If you’re new to Russian research, the Introduction to Russian Research presentation will provide essential understandings to get you started. Though it may seem a bit daunting at first, there is no need to be fluent in Russian to pursue ancestors in records.  One can learn a basic history of the Cyrillic alphabet and recognition of those letters in the tutorial Reading Russian Documents.  Coupled with the two-part Russian Alphabet, Language and Handwriting course, you will be able to decipher both handwritten and typed documents, as well as recognize essential words and phrases commonly found in church registers.

Armed with the newly attained knowledge and a few historic maps depicting boundaries within a given area, such as the Russian Empire in 1914, you have the potential to learn so much more about your Russian heritage.  You’ve got this!  

Increase your understanding of events which may have potentially yielded records for your Jewish ancestors, with our blog post, Jewish Subject Rights in the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Poland.  The article includes a timeline of historic events, providing an overview of the changes which impacted the Jewish people of the area, beginning in 1770s extending through the 1890s.

Typing Letters of the Cyrillic Alphabet

Typing Russian names, dates and locations into search forms requires overcoming the obstacle of creating the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet easily, while being armed only with a standard U.S. keyboard.  Changing the settings on your computer is an option, but can be cumbersome, require the referencing of a chart for the Cyrillic equivalents of the English alphabet keys, and prove difficult for the not-so-technologically savvy.  The good news is that there is an easy alternative - Lexilogos, an online multilingual keyboard that quickly converts English letters to their equivalents in Russian, as well as numerous other languages.

Simply type the English version of the name, word or phrases you require and the alternate characters appear in the language of your choice.  For instance, typing “Maksim Petrov, born 12 October 1876” magically becomes “Максим Петров, борн 12 Оцтобер 1876,” when the language has been set to Russian.

Past Issues


Andrew Glass, Politico (https://www.politico.com/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “JFK holds a televised news conference, Jan. 25, 1961.” 

U.S. Government Publishing Office, govinfo (https://www.govinfo.gov/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “Anniversary of the First Live Televised Presidential News Conference.” 

Museum of Broadcast Communications (https://museum.tv/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “A Force That Has Changed The Political Scene.”

Norah O’Donnell, CBS News (https://www.cbsnews.com/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “Jackie Kennedy's devotion to White House revealed.” 

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John F. Kennedy Jack Paar Tonight Show 1959.JPG : 21 January 2021), photo of original artwork  “https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John F. Kennedy Jack Paar Tonight Show 1959.JPG;” photograph uploaded by user 995577823Xyn.

California Department of Parks and Recreation (http://www.parks.ca.gov/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “Fort Ross State Historic Park.” 

Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History:  Russian Beginnings.” 

Boris Egorov, Russia Beyond (https://www.rbth.com/ : accessed 21 January 2021), “How Russians flooded the U.S..” 

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division “National Child Labor Committe Collection,” digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 21 January 2021), digital image of original photograph, “A case of "Economic Need." Jacob Roomel [i.e., Rommel?] and his family live in this roomy shack, well-furnished, with a good range, organ, etc. They own a good home in Ft. Collins, but late in April they moved out here, taking contract for nearly 40 acres of beets, working their 9 and 10 yr. old girls hard at piling and topping (altho[ugh] they are not rugged) and they will not return until November. The little girl said, "Piling is hardest, it gets your back. I have cut myself some, topping." The older girl said, "Don't you call us Russians, we're Germans," (although they were most of them were born in Russia). Family been in this country eleven yrs. (See photo 4041.) Location: Ft. Collins [vicinity], Colorado / Photo by Hine, Oct. 30/15.,” Lewis Wicks Hine, photographer, digital ID nclc 00363.

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