Hail To The Tube

As the election heads into the homestretch, I’ve asked Adrienne Faillace, the Archive’s content manager, to peer into our vaults and give us a look at some of our interviewees’ top memories of presidents and the media. Here’s her report:

Today we're used to seeing American presidents on television. We're not surprised if one shows up on “Saturday Night Live” right before an election (will President Obama be on before Nov. 6?), if one has a musical talent that he exhibits on a late-night talk show, or if one sits down for an interview with Barbara Walters. But it wasn't always so commonplace to have the commander in chief make a television appearance that wasn't expressly addressing matters of state. Let’s take a behind-the-scenes look at some of the Archive of American Television interviewees’ involvement with presidents on TV:

Manager/Producer Irving Fein on Harry S. Truman’s day on “The Jack Benny Show”:

“We went to Independence, Missouri and we did a show where Truman's showing Jack around the place and the Truman Library. He was wonderful. We went to his house and we spent a lot of time with Bess and Truman.

I’ll tell you what was interesting about that show. The director we had then, Seymour Burns, brought a crew from Kansas City to shoot the stuff.  And the library was all marble floors … We get back to California and we edited the stuff and put it together, and the director calls me and he says come to CBS immediately. I looked at the show and it was terrible. You could hardly hear some of the stuff because of the marble floors -- it kicked off and it made funny reaction sounds. We couldn’t reshoot it and we couldn’t go back to Kansas City. [The director] said, ‘Look, let me have the CBS sound experts work on it and we’ll clean it up.’

We worked on it for about two weeks. We got a lot of publicity on it and we had to show it to Jack, who really wanted to see it -- I kept stalling him.  Finally, we go down. We were with the writers and I had filled the writers in on it. Now Jack comes down and we sit in the projection room at CBS and we play the show and Jack looks at it. The sound was better, but it was still not perfect.  We finished and Jack said, ‘That’s terrible.  That’s the worst! You can’t release this show.’

I said to Jack, ‘You’ve got to release this show. TV Guide is coming up with a cover on the show next week and the publicity’s out. We can’t cancel the show.’ Jack was so angry.

We played the show and we got tremendous reviews. I think The New York Times said it was such a wonderful show because you felt it wasn’t the typical Hollywood show -- that it was done where the sound wasn’t perfect and you knew it was really shot at the library. There wasn’t a set and it worked fine. We were very lucky.”    

Producer George Schlatter on Richard M. Nixon's appearance on “Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In”

“Richard Nixon’s closest friend was Paul Keyes, who was a writer that had worked on ‘The Dean Martin Show’ and worked on ‘Jack Parr.’ Paul had an office in the White House at one point.

 I said, ‘We’ve got to get somebody on [‘Laugh-In’] who’s going to explode. Why don’t we try to get Nixon? Do you think he’d do it?’ So Paul talked to Nixon, and all the people around him told him ‘No, this is suicide, you can’t do it.’ But Paul and Nixon were so close, which eventually proved to be a problem, but it was great then. He said, ‘Will you do the show?’ and so we went over to CBS and it took six takes. I was there with Paul and Mr. Nixon. ‘No, no, no.  A little stronger.  Just kind of smile, sock it to me.’  ‘Oh yes, I got it.  I’m not used to this kind of comedy thing.  Sock it to me.’  ‘No, no, no, no, it’s a little…” 

They did six takes of him saying ‘Sock it to me’ and finally got a good one. I don’t know what happened to the tape. And then he went on the air and people said, “Well he’s a nice guy.” So you can sell anything….  It was funny. It was history…. Now you can’t have an election without the candidates going on every show in sight. But at that point it was revolutionary.”

Executive Tom Freston on MTV News’ interview with George H.W. Bush:

“You remember Clinton was on ‘Arsenio Hall,’ but he was all over MTV.  He did a lot of things; we repeatedly asked George Bush, through all these Republican consultants we had hired, ‘Please, do stuff.’  It was only at the very last two weeks before the campaign, he elected to do an interview with us. 

So Tabitha Soren, who had been sort of our heady, Stanford-educated news correspondent, went to interview George Bush. He made her do it on the tail of a train that was moving. It played so badly for him, it actually hurt him more than it helped him with the young people.  It was like dismissing ‘you young people’; it was just patronizing… The idea in George H.W. Bush’s mind, that he would ever have to appear on MTV, was such an anathema to him.  But in the end he was sort of forced to do it.  But he did it in a halfhearted way.”

Show creator Phil Rosenthal on directing Bill Clinton in “President Clinton, Final Day”s:

"He was scarily good, like so good an actor that you start to worry, ‘Wow, he’s maybe too good.’ Right?  I’ll believe anything he says to me. He was hilarious. He was so funny. I wish that people could see the thing, because he was really good. Most of the time I had maybe 90 minutes total with him to do the six-minute thing. Ninety minutes spread out over two or three sessions with him. I had to work very fast. He did it all in one or two takes.

There’s a scene of him riding his bicycle around the old executive office building -- and then he does it, and then you realize you’ve got to do one more take, and you go, ‘Ah, Mr. President!’  You call down this long, long hallway, and you hear from way down the hall, you hear, ‘What?’ And then you realize, that’s the president I’m yelling to.  Maybe I should run down and talk to the president without screaming, you know. So I would and we got along great and he told me all these stories and it was fun, really, it was fun.  Then we showed it to the audience there and they just went crazy. Because the President was in a funny movie. It wasn’t me, it was him. He was hilarious. He was unbelievable.”

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